The Voice of One Crying in the Desert

(John 1:6-8, 19-28)
I’m sorry I was away last week. I went to visit my friend, the great peace activist Philip Berrigan who was dying of cancer. He died last Friday night, and I stayed in Baltimore to preside at his funeral, which was a powerful celebration with over 600 people. Phil became famous in 1968 along with his brother Daniel when they burned draft files with homemade napalm in the Catonsville Nine action and issued the shocking statement saying, “Our apologies, good friends, for burning paper rather than children. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.” They were arrested and spent years in prison, and sparked the massive opposition to the Vietnam war. Later, Phil and Dan and our friends created the Plowshares movement where people walk onto military bases and hammer on nuclear weapons as Isaiah said, “to beat swords into plowshares.” Phil spent 11 years of his life in prison like Dr. King and Gandhi for protesting war. I think he was a great Christian, but not only that, a holy prophet of God.
Advent is a time to hear the voice of the prophets. A prophet is not someone who predicts the future, but someone who listens to God and then goes and tells the world God’s truth, which usually no one wants to hear. A prophet “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”
John the Baptist was the greatest of the prophets. Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest person who ever lived. He lived in the desert, called everyone to repent of the social sin of injustice and violence, and to prepare for the coming of Christ and God’s reign of peace and love. Our Gospel says only a few things about him, that he came “to give testimony,” “to testify to the light,” and that he called himself, “a voice crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.'”
Now if we saw someone fasting, eating locusts, living in rags, walking across the desert here, saying, “Repent, the end is near, prepare for the coming of Christ,” we would probably think he was not playing with a full deck. But the Gospel says John was sent by personally by God, that John lived every minute of his life in relationship to Christ, that he tried not to do his own will, but only the will of Christ. John is trying to shake us up, to wake us up, to help us see the light of day, so to speak. And the Gospel wants us to take John the Baptist seriously, just as Jesus did.
Most of us were raised to be good, devout Catholics, to be respectable, not to rock the boat, to have a private spirituality, to keep the status quo, but John the Baptist disrupts everything, shatters normalized religion and tells us to get ready for Christ, to prepare for the coming of Christ, which means we have to repent of the social sin of injustice and war, and prepare our hearts and our world for Christ, to change our lives, to turn back to God, to reconcile with everyone, to love everyone, to be at peace with everyone, to be nonviolent with everyone, and then to look for the One whom we do not recognize, for Christ, already in our midst.
So Advent invites us to prepare for the coming of Christ. It’s a precious time of preparation, a time for prayer, as I was saying, when we can take 15 minutes each day in silent prayer, looking for Christ, contemplating Christ, getting ready for Christ. If we can become people of prayer and listen to God, then we too will be sent like John the Baptist to testify to the light, to be voices crying out in the desert, to prepare a way for the Lord, and to point out Christ to one another.
So today the Gospel asks us: How do we testify to Christ, like John the Baptist? How can we live more and more in relationship with Christ, like John the Baptist? How do we cry out in the desert of this country, and announce the truth of the Gospel? Who are our prophets? How are we becoming, like John the Baptist, a prophetic people, prophets who announce the coming of the God of peace and love in this world of war and injustice?
Isaiah tells us today (in chapter 61) that we do these things when we preach good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, and announce the canceling of all debts, including the entire third world debt. St. Paul says we do these things if we pray without ceasing, rejoice always, give thanks, and refrain from every kind of evil. Then, Paul says, the God of peace will make us perfectly holy, like John the Baptist, and we will be ready for the coming of our Lord.