“I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
Such were the words of John the Baptist (John 1:26-27), the prophet who dedicated his life to a different kind of Advent: preparing as many people as he possibly could for the coming of the Messiah. After centuries of waiting, anticipation and prophecy, John was telling anybody who would listen that the time was nigh — Jesus, the Messiah, was very much here.
Even without that message, though, John would have in all likelihood had no trouble convincing people he was a little bit insane.
I like to think that when Jesus went out to the desert to see who exactly God had sent to stir up the crowds for his arrival, he saw John and, at least at first, kind of looked up to the sky as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” For those unfamiliar with John the Baptist, a few points: he snacked on locusts and honey, was generally unkempt and probably didn’t have the most refined preaching method. Also he wore shirts made of hair, something which made contemporary Palestinian fashionistas sneer.
But while John the Baptist’s role as the one who’d prepare people for Jesus may seem like questionable PR, he got the job done, and he did so humbly: When Jesus finally entered the public eye, John left it, not looking to capitalize on Jesus’ renown for his own interests. After all, he had hair shirts to weave and locusts to chew.
The role of a prophet is almost entirely thankless — you’re usually spreading some sort of message that requires great faith to believe in, usually in an environment where great faith is hard to come by. Oftentimes, prophets had to be convinced that she or he was the right person for the job. That was usually because he or she flat-out didn’t want to do the job. And John the Baptist, who didn’t necessarily fit the bill for a public speaker that would appear to general audiences — and by “necessarily” I mean “at all” — did what he was called to do. Today, he’s one of the most important personalities in Advent reflections because he unapologetically and faithfully sheds light on exactly who we’re preparing for during these four weeks before Christmas, 2,000 years later.
The thing about John, though, is that it may be difficult to relate to him in a meaningful way. (Probably because of the locusts and hair shirts. Just a guess, though.) So maybe a worthwhile Advent reflection would be to think about who our own personal prophets are. In the same way John prepared people for Jesus and the ministry he would do over three of the most important years in the history of the world, who has prepared us for some important element of our lives?
I’ll end with a brief reflection on those who have been prophets of sorts for me. While I was at Loyola Marymount Univerisity in Los Angeles as a theological studies student, my faith was challenged. I took classes that challenged me to challenge the tenets of the faith that, until then, I’d accepted blindly. Anyone who’s gone through this knows this is hard, to take the faith you’ve grown up with and, all at once, subject it to loving criticism. I did that for all four of my college years, and I’ve come out of it with way more questions than I went into college with. But that’s the way I prefer it, because I want my faith to be meaningful. It can’t be meaningful without questioning, and the people who guided me in learning how to question are those professors and campus ministers who took a genuine interest in me and challenged me to grow, to think outside the box I’d created for myself, helping me arrive at a faith I can call my own. They are what give me the inner strength to continue with this thing called faith — they are what prove to me that although being intentionally faithful is a lifelong endeavor and without an endpoint, there are wonderful, life-giving rewards along the way.
Jesus had John, and I’m blessed to have those professors and campus ministers. Who is prophetic in your life? Reflect on it, thank those people and rejoice in the fact that, because of people like them, our lives are a constant Advent: always in preparation for something better and bigger than us.