by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
It is a wonder that the liturgical season of Advent has never been made into a theater production. When one thinks of these four weeks and what they convey, there are all the makings of wonderful drama. The story of a promise fulfilled after an extremely lengthy time of hopeful waiting by a select people; of celebrating the fulfillment of that promise in the most unexpected way; and another “joyful” waiting for fulfillment of a new and definitive promise – all of this has the earmarks of great theater. Much like the production based on another biblical story: Joseph and His Multicolored Coat.
The two principal characters in an Advent play would of course be John the Baptist and Miriam of Nazareth. They play complementary roles in this double narrative of the once and future history of salvation.
This week, a look at the first of these actors, John the Baptist. Despite the fact that chronologically he comes after Miriam in the story, he is the one who most publicly connects both threads of the tale. He is the last of the Jewish prophets who kept the promise alive and the first to announce the “buena nueva”, the good news of the Savior’s arrival.
John, in the eyes of everyone who “sees”, is a fascinating character. His father and mother, Elizabeth and Zacharias (who play supporting roles in the drama), are well beyond the child-bearing age. Yet as the Gospel says, “nothing is impossible to God”. When he is born, his father speaks a lovely prayer of praise to the One who has sent this child to “go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”
Then as a grown man John does exactly that, announcing the imminent appearance of “him who comes after me but who is before me”. By the Jordan River he vigorously points out the sins of the people while at the same time offering a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins”.
John speaks an Advent word when he insists that this One who is near “must increase, while I must decrease.” But he doesn’t leave the scene quietly. He continues pointing out sinfulness particularly to King Herod who had entered an adulterous relationship with his own sister-in-law. He is incarcerated by the embarrassed and furious king.
There is a compelling subplot in John’s story that concerns his days in Herod’s jail. It speaks of John’s utter humanity and would bond him with an audience in a tender and intimate way. Evidently, he was able to communicate with some of his disciples from his prison cell. He sends two of them to ask Jesus and his increasing impact all on who heard him. “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”
One could interpret this inquiry in a variety of ways. Could it be, for example, that this strong, outspoken herald of Christ’s coming, now languishing in a dungeon cell was facing what many people in dire circumstances experience: self-doubt, a sense that his life had been wasted, futile? In a word was he in the grip of a depression bordering on despair? An audience would surely identify with such a human reaction. Happily, John’s disciples hear Jesus’ assuring words: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard … blind given sight, cripples able to walk…” and above all, “the poor having the Good News proclaimed to them”. John can now accept the inevitability of what awaited him. He had completed his vital work of precursor to the long-awaited Messiah.
The dramatic finale of John the Baptist’s life is his beheading ordered by the king at the behest of that same sister-in-law. The prophet’s voice is brutally silenced. His message that the Reign of God is at hand continues to ring true.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.