On the second Sunday of Advent one of the leading figures of this liturgical season appears, John the Baptist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church portrays him as follows: “[He] is the Lord’s immediate precursor or forerunner, sent to prepare his way … Going before Jesus ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah,’ John bears witness to Christ in his preaching, by his Baptism of conversion, and through his martyrdom” (#523).
We usually emphasize his austerity: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” It was the typical dress and nourishment of the prophets, especially Elijah; and John is a prophet, the last of the prophets; Jesus will call him “more than a prophet.” Of course, not only his clothing and food were those of a prophet; in his preaching he behaved like the ancient prophets. As we can see in today’s gospel, when he addresses the Pharisees and Sadducees, he does not mince his words. At the center of his message there is a call for conversion. Nowadays it is fashionable to interpret this call (“Repent!”) according to the etymological meaning of the original Greek verb (μετανοεῖτε), that is, “change your mind.” Of course, this is also part of the process of conversion; but without exhausting it. Conversion is like a “U-turn” in driving: it means to change direction, to turn back to God, abandoning sin and changing one’s life.
Great problems of interpretation arise when we read the words used by John in his preaching. He talks of “impending wrath,” of an “ax lying at the root of the trees,” of “trees cut down and thrown into the fire.” He says of Jesus: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire … He will clear his threshing floor … he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Well, these words not only are unfamiliar to our present way of thinking, but they do not correspond to what Jesus actually did. No doubt Jesus had a style totally different from that foretold by John; next Sunday we will see the bewilderment of the Baptist in front of Jesus’ actual behavior. But can we say that John failed in his mission of preparing the way of the Lord? Not at all. He did prepare the way of the Lord—and could not prepare it better—precisely in that manner, threatening people with God’s wrath, and urging them to repent, if they wanted to escape from it.
Admittedly, Jesus came to reveal the mercy of God; but, to experience it, there is need of conversion. God’s mercy is not low-priced; it has a cost: if we want to be forgiven, we have to repent. No conversion, no mercy. Without conversion, the only prospect for us is to experience the impending wrath. We are no more accustomed to hear of God’s wrath, as if it does not exist, because in God there would be only mercy and love. But this is not the God of the Bible—not only of the Old Testament, but even of the New. Saint Paul tells us that Jesus came to deliver us from the coming wrath (1Thess 1:10). This does mean that there is no wrath, but that we have to be delivered from it. Paul adds: “God did not destine us for wrath, but to gain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thess 5:9). Exactly in this we can see the infinite mercy of God: he does not want us to succumb to his wrath.
But there is need for people to know the risk they run. That is why John threatens the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” These threats are not aimed at plunging people into the depths of despair, but at arousing in them a sound fear of God. Today’s first reading talks of it. Nowadays many think that we should not feel fear for God, but only love. In reality, fear and love do not oppose each other; indeed, if we want to experience the love of God, we have first to fear him. The fear of the Lord is the best preparation to receive his mercy. That is precisely what John did to prepare the way of the Lord.