John the Baptist seems already to have had many disciples among the children of Israel, especially among the ’anawim, the simple believers who day and night begged for mercy and forgiveness from God. Implementing Isaiah, John demands that people prepare the way of the coming Lord and strive for conversion of heart in view of the remission of sins. But what precisely is the meaning of this too familiar phrase, the way of the Lord? God never asks that we build a road in front of us as do over-confident pioneers, and then walk along it in order to go to encounter him.
In fact, God asks the exact opposite: our assigned task is to clear the road which he is making, on which he is to reach us as he comes towards us, seeking us. The road is not ours but the Lord’s, and the initiative, the intention, and the project are all his! This road, in fact, is nothing other than the Incarnation of the eternal Word, an exclusively Trinitarian endeavor. As in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the Bridegroom makes his own way toward us. Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm. In our eventual encounter with Christ, he will gather us up in his arms like lambs and carry us in his bosom, and the glorious tryst results solely from Christ’s search for each one of us, and not from our own initiative. God traces a way of mercy and forgiveness toward us, and we can meet him along that way only if we first acknowledge our sin. Our humble confession of sin is the “toll”, so to speak, that we must pay for transiting on the way that belongs to the Lord.
The Lord always precedes us, anticipates us. It is not for nothing that Jesus said: I am the way. Once John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he then immediately disappears from the scene, but not before uttering these weighty words: One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Such symbolic stooping and loosening of thongs express John’s peculiar ministry as the forerunner. He is affirming that he is not worthy to serve Jesus even as his slave. John’s whole task and mission is to set the stage for another, Jesus. John doesn’t even dare to pronounce the holy name of Jesus, and yet (O wonder!) he identifies Jesus as his own disciple. Pointing to Jesus, John calls him the one coming after me, which is biblical language for the one following me as a disciple. What an inconceivable paradox, grounded in the Incarnate Word’s humility and his ardent desire to share our sinful condition! But the clairvoyant John discerns perfectly that this one following him is, in fact, mightier than he. This topsy-turvy inversion of the conventional roles of lord and slave at the social level is a mystery that touches each of us deeply. For we know that he, the Lord, Jesus the Messiah, made himself our slave, too, at the Last Supper and on the Cross, and he expects us to follow suit in our relationship with one another if we truly want to participate in his divine life.
John also confesses the difference between his baptism and that bestowed by Jesus: John’s is in water only, the other in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God that the Messiah possesses in fullness and will give to those who believe in him. Here too we have unsurpassable fulfillment: “John announces the coming of one who will immerse humanity in the Spirit of God. [Jesus], for his part, not only performs a rite to prepare for that encounter but truly realizes, enacts [in us], communion with God himself.” This happens when the divine Child is born of Mary as Bread for a hungry humanity, to nourish and heal us with the very substance of God, who has become flesh in himself.
The Baptism of Christ Piero della Francesca, c. 1448-1450, Tempera on panel, 66 x 46", National Gallery, London. Meditation by Father Simeon.