Being a prophet is hard
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Being a prophet is hard
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
These words of Pastor Martin Niemöller have always haunted me. He spoke up against Nazi Germany and reminded people that there is a collective responsibility for the good of a nation. He seems to me like a modern-day prophet.
Looking at today’s Gospel, I am reminded that St. John the Baptist is one of my favorite figures of the entire New Testament. He wore camel hair suits, ate locusts and wild honey, and lived in the desert. He was one hard-nosed dude. And yet, what comes out so clearly in today’s Gospel passage is something different. We are reminded that John came to the world as a prophet. And how was he a prophet? He announced the coming of the Messiah, who happened to be his cousin, Jesus. His mother had received the mother of Jesus while John was still in the womb. His mother had told him how he had leaped in her womb for joy at the incredible event. In between a mythical, super-hero presence and a wonderful story of meeting the Savior, John is a reminder that being a prophet is hard.
Called to be prophets
We are all called to be prophets. How is that so? Through our baptism, we are called to be like Jesus, who was Priest, Prophet, and King. “Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1991, 783). What does it mean to be a prophet? The Church fulfills its prophetic office when “it deepens its understanding and becomes Christ's witness in the midst of this world” (CCC, 1991, 785). We are called to understand and to witness to Christ in the world.
What are we called to understand?
We are called to understand how God works in and interacts with the world. This understanding is much harder than it may seem. We live in a world that wants to ignore willfully God’s presence. Grotius famously remarked that morality is lived “etsi Deus non daretur,” loosely translated “as if God did not exist.” This is a world in which every day’s news is a witness to the lack of God’s presence. Chesterton once remarked: “Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it.” Is this maxim still valid today? It is the phrase of a prophet in the modern world. To understand God’s presence in the world, we must understand the way he works. He works through people and his truth remains unchanged, even if popular opinion goes sliding in a different direction. “Everybody is doing it” is not a valid reason for a Christian to justify immoral behavior. To stand up for what is right can become wildly unpopular in the modern world.
Witness to Christ in the world
What is the message of Christ to the world today? What is Christmas trying to tell us? When Pope John Paul II assumed the Chair of Peter, he took one phrase as his mantra: “Be not afraid.” This phrase echoes many Bible passages and was surely often on the lips of our savior. Compare this phrase to the message that the world is trying to communicate to us today: “stay scared.” It seems that the powers at be want us to stay scared so that we will comply with whatever the current ideology is that we are supposed to obey blindly today. We can fear public opinion, rejection, and hurt feelings. Or, we can be witnesses to the Will of God that desires our own happiness and well-being. That well-being is not, however, a perpetual plodding through our comfort zone. It is an embracing of the Cross and Mystery of the Incarnation. As Christians, we are called to witness to the whole of the truth of the Gospel, which includes the beauty of the Incarnation and the dreadful power of the Cross.
When the time comes that Christians are persecuted, will we be taken away? If our message is not uncomfortable to the sensibilities of the world we live in, what are we worth? We are like salt that has lost its taste. (cf. Mt. 5:13)
What are we called to do this week? Represent a Christian opinion in an unfriendly atmosphere. Speak out for Christ.