The feast of the Nativity of the Precursor, St John the Baptist, celebrated a few days ago, affords us the opportunity to reflect upon the significance of this extraordinary man, the “greatest among those born of woman”. His grandeur lies precisely in pointing the way to Christ. This is admirably expressed in the “Benedictus” where his father Zachariah proclaims, “Thou, son, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways“.
To prepare the ways of the Lord: is that not the role of every priest? To prepare the path in souls for the visitation of Christ. But to prepare it for what? The Benedictus goes on: “To give knowledge of salvation… for the forgiveness of sins“. As much as to say that the role of any worker in the Lord’s vineyard, if it is to lead to Christ, can only do so by giving to understand the fundamental importance of conversion. We need to be saved, we cannot save ourselves. And being saved implies being saved from something, and that something is sin.
So we conclude that any form of evangelisation, any form of proclamation of the mystery of Christ and His Gospel, must of necessity start with the proclamation of the reality of sin. The Baptist did precisely that when he pronounced these austere words to the people who came to be baptised: “Ye offspring of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance: and do not begin to say, We have Abraham for our father. For I say unto you that God is able of these stones, to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire” (Lk 3:7-9). Jesus Himself began His mission in a similar way: “The time is accomplished and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel” (Mk 1:15) : And St Peter, on the very day of Pentecost, tells the Jews: “Do penance: and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost… Save yourselves from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:38-40).
May St John the Baptist give us all, especially us priests, the courage to denounce sin and its tragic consequences. We sometimes hear it said that we shouldn’t lead people on “guilt trips”. But what if a “guilt trip” is a “truth trip”? For either we are guilty of sin or we are not. If we are not, then we are the Immaculate Conception. But according to our faith, there is only one of those…! And if we are, then our conversion and our peace can only be found once we have acknowledged our failings, and resolve to turn around, have a “metanoia”, a change of heart, and set out in a new direction, for “salvation is found in the truth” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 851). Such is the pedagogy of the saints of whom the Baptist is the greatest. St John the Baptist, pray for us!