Friday, September 11, 2009

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.” ’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

- Matthew 3:1-12

John the Baptist makes his appearance in this gospel. He is baptizing for repentance, for the coming Kingdom that is at hand. His clothing marks him as a prophet, resembling that of Elijah, and his way of life is also that characteristic of the sects, such as the Essenes, who were preparing for the coming kingdom and lived ascetically in the wilderness.

The striking notion displayed here in John's practice and prophecy is that of preparation for the kingdom, especially via repentance. It is important to understand the significance of repentance, the notion conveyed in this Greek word of metanoia. It has a deeper and more transcendent meaning than that which we normally give it. In Greek it means literally "change of mind." But it conveys a notion of a deep internal turning, of personal change. My study bible notes it thusly: "Repentance, which always accompanies belief, is a total about-face. It is a radical change of one's spirit, mind and heart, a complete orientation of the whole of one's life and being. It is the necessary first step on the way of the Lord (see verse 3) and is followed by the confession of sins, the decisive act of baptism, and an actual change in one's life, the 'fruits worthy of repentance' (verses 6, 8-12)."

So, if we take a clear look at what John is preaching, it is the way of preparation for something expected yet completely new. He's asking us to "wipe our slates clean" in a sense, because something brand new is coming down the line; it is, in fact, at hand; imminent. What we want is to set ourselves aright, to orientate ourselves to something new and special, a change of reality, new conditions being added into life, replacing the old with the new. To set ourselves aright is to understand ourselves from a spiritual point of view: whatever we think we know, we must be prepared to face the fact that there are things we don't know, that in faith we must be prepared to embrace.

His harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees reflect that the notion of repentance is compatible with those for whom humility has value; those who understand that the Mystery of what is to come is something we cannot anticipate. Belief requires a willingness to open and change our minds, to orientate ourselves to the new, to the unknown, to the Mystery that is God and this kingdom. If we think we know, that life is a formula, leaving out this mystery of the coming kingdom, then we are far from its fruits. The warning that "from these stones" (Heb. 'ebanim) God can raise up children (Heb. banim) is, according to my study bible, a Hebrew play on words. But its meaning is clear: those whose understanding does not allow repentance or change, a willingness to look at oneself with humility, to wipe the slate clean, to understand that we "don't know," perhaps may not be a part of that kingdom - God has the power to raise children to Himself; what is expected might not be what is to come.

And finally, what is expected remains steeped in the mystery and reality of Judgment. That which will come is baptism of fire and of the Holy Spirit, a different sort of baptism altogether than John's preparation for that kingdom. This baptism of fire and Spirit is one that transforms, that gives rebirth - echoing the sentiment about God's children in the "living stones" (a phrase found elsewhere in the gospels). Altogether, we are still in the realm of prophecy and Mystery - although the kingdom is coming closer. John the Baptist speaks on themes that Jesus will echo about fruitfulness, about Judgment and repentance, about bearing fruit and transformation. We are to expect the unexpected. We are to prepare for that which is new, which will set us all in a new place, and, echoing Isaiah, we are to make the way straight for the Lord.

More than ever, this Mystery must never be neglected, and our resulting need for humility - to understand that we do not know everything, that life cannot be whittled down to formulas and good works, to rules and to abstract ideas of what is good: that we must turn again to Mystery, to that which is greater than ourselves, and to hold ourselves open to meet it.

We pray "Come, Holy Spirit" or words to that effect. But it is important that we meet grace in order to receive it, with openness, a pure heart and a sense in which we understand that to meet this Mystery in faith is to be ready to accept it, in humility, and that we don't know what its change in us will bring.

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