Advent III Reflection: Confronting the Imperfect Herald

December 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

St. John the Baptist by El Greco, 1579

St. John the Baptist by El Greco, 1579

Imagine the perfect herald for Christ and his ministry. How would the herald dress? Where would the herald go? Which of Christ’s themes would the herald emphasize?In my own mind, she or he would dress unobtrusively, travel to those who cannot travel, and share Christ’s profound, unconditional love for humanity.

But I must have a limited imagination, because the first person to announce Christ’s ministry was John the Baptist: dressed most obtrusively in camel skins, waiting in an inconvenient location for the people to make the pilgrimage to him, and then calling those pilgrims a brood of vipers and describing Christ using terms appropriate for a pyromaniacal Grim Reaper.

Advent III focuses on preparation for Christ’s coming, and yet the man charged with leading that preparation, John the Baptist, seems to me profoundly unsympathetic: dogmatic, arrogant, comfortless; precursor to the fiercest fire and brimstone Christianity. Exactly the belief system from which I try to separate myself: “those people seem to have no concept of a loving God” or, “they shouldn’t even call themselves Christians.”

Yet the Christ who preached the Sermon on the Mount, one of civilization’s most enduring expressions of divine grace, mercy, and love, is also the Christ who came to John the Baptist as He prepared to begin His own ministry: He was willing to engage first with a man who located God’s power not in love and mercy but in retribution and damnation.

Perhaps the lesson is that respectfully confronting that fire and brimstone rhetoric is key to preparing the way for Christ: that to share the good news, we sometimes need to listen first to the “bad news” and understand why it resonates so strongly with some people. Hopefully, dialogue from a place of understanding will allow messages about God’s love to get through more easily than from a place of confrontation.

So as I prepare for the Second Coming, I feel called to engage in a more thoughtful way with fellow Christians whose understanding of God seems more connected to John the Baptist’s than mine. We can prepare together, and while I can’t force my understanding of God on them, I can be open to understanding their conception of God and why their own spiritual journeys have led them to that conception. We’re all imperfect heralds for Christ, and if He was willing to let John the Baptist lead the preparations for the First Coming, then I can be respectful of those who echo John’s rhetoric today.

– Jared Spencer

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