In our lighting of the Advent candle we pay especial attention each week to those whose lives point towards the coming of Christ. The first week we recalled the patriarchs out of whom God witnessed to His love for humankind. Last week we lit a candle for the prophets, remembering their longing for a coming messiah, a chosen one of God to heal and save from oppression. This week, we turn to John the Baptist, that wild preacher who ‘prepares the way of the Lord’ by preaching repentance and baptism.
Our readings today seem to give two conflicting emotions that revolve around John the Baptist’s message: ‘rejoice’ says the letter to the Phillipians; yet, Jesus will ‘burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’, says John. How can the apparent fear of judgement be squared with the call to rejoice?
That is, of course, the tension of Advent: it is a season of penitence and self-examination, but also joyful expectation that Jesus will come to save. The central image that ties the two sides together for John is fire. Fire is an ambivalent image: it destroys on the one hand and purifies on the other. So it is that John says that Jesus’ baptism involves the ‘Holy Spirit and fire’: God’s activity in us purifies our being by destroying our sinfulness, the ‘chaff’ that separates us from purity and God. Judgement is therefore an occasion for joy: God’s judgement only destroys that which separates us from Him and stunts our growth into human beings fully alive in God. This is why John the Baptist’s message is ‘good news’, an occasion to rejoice.
But how can we know that our baptism is alive in us, purifying and refining us with the fire of God’s love? Well, John says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, how we act in the world flows from who we are. If God has refined us, we will produce good fruit. If we have failed to co-operate with God, we will produce bad fruit. John lists some examples of what may be good fruit: generosity, love, honesty, and avoidance of greed.
There is nothing particularly original or outstanding in John’s moral teaching. Indeed, we could say that it fits very well with the teaching on mutual respect and dependence summed up in Donne’s observation that “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” But John’s crucial point is that the moral life lived in this way simply prepares to experience ever more deeply the purifying baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Our growth in faithfulness depends first on God’s refining activity, but also upon our own response, the way we act as a result.