John the Baptist is one of the central figures of Advent. Today’s Gospel defines his role. He is to prepare the way of the Lord. But how does John prepare the way of the Lord? We might think that he does this simply by announcing that Jesus is coming. But I think his role is much deeper than that. John’s ministry is not about information. It is about formation. He is not only telling us about Jesus, he is forming us so that we will be able to receive Jesus.
A young man was searching for spiritual enlightenment. He traveled off to a monastery in the mountains of Tibet which was the home of a renowned religious teacher. When he saw the teacher face to face, the monk asked him, “What do you want from me?” The young man said, “I want to be holy. I want to know God.” “That is an important request,” said the monk, “Let’s talk about it.” And they talked for several hours. At the end of that time the monk said, “I think I have something to offer you. But first we must have tea.” So he gave the young man a teacup and a saucer and he brought the teapot over to him. Slowly he began to pour tea into the cup. When the tea reached the rim of the cup, the monk kept pouring. Tea overflowed into the saucer and onto the floor. “Stop, stop,” said the young man, “There is no more room in this cup for tea.” The monk said, “Neither is their room in you for holiness. You must find your emptiness if you wish to receive God.”
John the Baptist preached repentance because he wanted his listeners to change, to empty themselves of pride and self-sufficiency. John knew that it is only if they found their emptiness that they would have room to receive Jesus. John the Baptist wants to form us also. He calls us to own our need and our weakness, because John understands that it is only when we find our emptiness that we will understand why we wait for Christ.
I think that most of us have strong relationships in our family and with our friends. But John the Baptist asks us to address the broken relationships in our lives, the person who we have hurt or who has hurt us. We know that these relationships should be healed but we cannot find the energy or the will to do so. That recognition of our inability to make things right reminds us of why we wait for Jesus. We are blessed to live in this country that has the finest medical system in the world. Yet we know that twenty-eight million Americans do not have adequate access to health care. This is not as it should be. But we see how economics, politics, and the lack of will prevents us from coming to a solution. John the Baptist wants us to own that paralysis, because it reminds us that we need the Spirit of God to guide us. We have certainly been made aware of our weakness as Catholics this last week as we watched Father Robert McWilliams be arrested for possessing child pornography. We can take some comfort in the fact that Father McWilliams was removed from ministry before he could molest a child. But his arrest reminds us that sexual predators are a part of our society and of our church. That is why we need God’s help to keep us vigilant and committed to protect our children from them.
Jesus is coming. John the Baptist wants us to own our weakness and our need. To do so is a necessary action of Advent, because It is only by finding the emptiness in our lives, in our world, in our church, that we will have to room to let Jesus in.