If you’ve ever had the chance to wander through the “Shrines of the Nations” behind the sanctuary of the St. Paul Cathedral, you may have seen there a beautiful statue of St. John the Baptist in the chapel dedicated to the French Canadians.
Clothed in his rustic garb, he stands on a pedestal that bears the Latin inscription of his famous words Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold the Lamb of God!”
As is often the case in statues of the Baptist, he is depicted as pointing with his finger to Jesus — though here, oddly it seems, he is actually pointing downward. A moment’s reflection soon tells us why: he is pointing to the tabernacle on the altar below his feet where, in years past, Jesus himself was truly present in the reserved Blessed Sacrament.
This unique image housed in our magnificent Cathedral serves to remind us of the mission of John the Baptist, a mission that is at the heart of this Sunday’s Gospel. It is fitting that Mark chose to begin his Gospel with this passage, because all of John’s words and actions — indeed, the whole of his being — were bound up with this one mission: to reveal to the world the true identity of Jesus, “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
Preparing for a king
Mark begins by associating John with Isaiah’s prophecy of “the voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths’” (Isaiah 40:3).
In the ancient world when a king was traveling through rough country, it was common for his servants to run ahead of the royal caravan to smooth out bumps in the road, fill in the holes, and clear away the rocks — all so that the king would have an easy and comfortable journey to his destination.
Mark then tells us that John “appeared” in the desert beyond the Jordan River, and that he was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. For the first Christians, these references were unmistakable: John is dressed just as Elijah once was (2 Kings 1:8) and he appears in the very place where the great Old Testament prophet was last seen (2 Kings 2:6-11), to fulfill the prophecy of Malachi that Elijah would return to announce the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5).
When John proclaims, “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals,” he is telling us something even more wonderful. As St. Jerome notes, the untying of sandals was a ceremony commonly used among the ancient Jews when a deceased man’s relative consented to marry his wife (cf. Ruth 4:7-8).
More than humble symbol
John’s words, then, are not just a sign of his humility; they are meant to declare to us that he is not worthy to take the place of Jesus, who is the bridegroom of the new and eternal covenant between God and his people.
John’s actions declare Jesus as king, his appearance announces Jesus as Messiah, and his words proclaim Jesus as bridegroom.
As disciples of Christ today, we would do well to make John the Baptist’s mission our own.
Perhaps we are not capable of preaching in forceful words — then let us proclaim Jesus as Lord by our very being. By our actions, let us prepare his way into our neighbors’ hearts, smoothing out the mountains of pride and filling in the valleys of shame.
This Advent, may we make it, once more, our very identity as Christians to be prophets, like John the Baptist, whose sole purpose in life is to proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ to the world.
Deacon Evan Koop is in formation for the priesthood at The St. Paul Seminary for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. His home parish is St. Rita in Cottage Grove and his teaching parish is St. Michael in St. Michael.
Sunday, Dec. 4
Second Sunday of Advent
- Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
- 2 Peter 3:8-14
- Mark 1:1-8
What prophet-like actions have you taken this Advent to set an example for your neighbors?
Category: Sunday Scriptures