He looks forbidding, but don’t be put off by his appearance. John the Baptist was sent by God into the wilderness where you can’t wear fine clothes or worry how you look. It’s not an easy place to live; people may wander aimlessly and be afraid and lose hope there.
John’s father, the priest Zachariah, said: “You, my child shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.” John’s role was to guide those in the wilderness “into the way of peace.” (Luke 1)
A wilderness seems like a godless place, but the Jews learned it was a place where you discover God. When their ancestors wandered aimlessly from Egypt,
“God found them in a wilderness
in a wasteland of howling desert,
he shielded them and cared for them
as the apple of his eye.” (Deuteronomy 12, 1-12)
So God is not absent in the wilderness. From the temple in Jerusalem, the Prophet Isaiah said the holy mountain of the Lord can be reached through the wilderness. Standing in the wilderness, John the Baptist claims it as a holy place and the way through it is holy too. Though the hills are steep and the valleys deep, and the mountain of the Lord must be climbed, “the way of the Lord” is there:
“A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.”
The Judean wilderness where John the Baptist baptized lay about 15 miles east of Jerusalem in the Jordan Valley north of the Dead Sea. Pilgrims coming from the north took an ancient road along the River Jordan and followed it as it veered right near the town of Jericho to ascend steeply about 3,500 feet up to the Holy City, about an 9 hour walk. Near where the road begins to ascend, John baptized great crowds in the river’s refreshing waters. He baptized Jesus and his disciples in these waters and then pointed Jesus out as “the Lamb of God” and told his followers to follow him as their Shepherd and Way.
He points Jesus out as our Shepherd and our Way this Advent. John was a voice in the wilderness. Where would he speak today? What would the wilderness be like where we would find him?
Sunday Homily: http://thepassionists.org/reflections/