‘Someone is coming who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’
When all the people asked John, ‘What must we do?’ he answered, ‘If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.’ There were tax collectors too who came for baptism, and these said to him, ‘Master, what must we do?’ He said to them, ‘Exact no more than your rate.’ Some soldiers asked him in their turn, ‘What about us? What must we do?’ He said to them, ‘No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!’
A feeling of expectancy had grown among the people, who were beginning to think that John might be the Christ, so John declared before them all, ‘I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals; He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.’ As well as this, there were many other things he said to exhort the people and to announce the Good News to them.
The world that Jesus was born into was as discontented and made dysfunctional by institutional injustice as any. The times of optimism and boundless hope are few and short-lived. The election of a Kennedy or an Obama, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the heady days of a political revolution inspired by ideals or the immediate aftermath of a war, wedding days, all new beginnings are occasions to believe the impossible and forget how all previous such hopes were disappointed. It is the poor who buy lottery tickets.
Social sins – such as we have embedded in our financial systems that send luxury house prices rocketing while increasing numbers, even in affluent societies, can barely house and feed their families – drain the spirit and disempower the will. In such despair, the people came out to John asking simply ‘what shall we do?’
John the Baptist is Advent, actively waiting for the Messiah. In response to the people’s question, he confronts the injustices and social sins of his time that oppressed the lives but also the souls of those who came to the desert to hear him. They wondered about him, hoping that he may be the saviour who will right all wrongs and re-establish the order of justice. The unhappy are always looking for a messiah.
He is not, nor even a social revolutionary. He tells the tax collectors not to extract more than their due and soldiers not to use their power to exploit and intimidate. How many societies today, rife with corruption in politics, judiciary and police, could he not have said this to? It is the bare minimum for justice. And it cannot be separated from the spiritual dimension – as St Oscar Romero came to understand. Nor can we draw a red line between our meditation and the way we live, vote, spend our disposable income and relate to the problems of the day.
I once gave a retreat to priests in the Philippines from a very poor and remote part of the country. The seminary where we gathered was as minimal as many of the homes of the people and the priests who served them. I remember the sink in my room fell off the wall when I touched it and I felt bad about causing them more expense. As I spoke individually with the priests, I realised what true servants of the people they were, caring for their material rights and needs, defending their dignity, as well as nourishing their religious and spiritual lives.
On a visit to Venezuela I met a smart young businessman. He travelled frequently to the US to arrange the flow of luxury items back to customers at home who had the money to pay. Most people even then scraped and struggled humiliatingly for bare necessities. What disturbed me more, though, was his blank refusal to discuss the social situation or politics at all. It was the ‘public’ sphere and he had enough to do in his own ‘private’ world. When I pushed him, he justified his attitude by saying of the politicians ‘they’re all the same.’ It was the logic of the jungle badly wrapped.
When Jesus finally appears on the scene he will be, like John, a prophet excoriating injustice, defending the defenceless passionate for justice. This may have been the actual cause of his downfall more than his truly revolutionary spiritual revelation. But he will be more than a prophet. His word will show humanity a radical new social system attuned to the presence of God in all things. This alignment of the inner and outer worlds, harmonising the political and the mystical, he calls the Kingdom. To hear this, to listen, to wait and to pray and to stay awake is to be ‘baptised with the Spirit and fire’. The proof is that it will burn us.
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