No mere reed shaken with the sultry wind of the desert; No mere reed shaped by the prevailing winds of popularity and fashion, John the Baptist is an uncompromisingly harsh figure which arose from an uncompromisingly harsh desert wilderness. You do not seek out John the Baptist to see someone mollycoddled in the lap of luxury and affluence.
No mincer of words, nor one who spares the feelings of the hearer is John the Baptist, proclaimer of something that is not very much in vogue these days: no proclaimer of opinion, but the herald of unvarnished truth. Nothing about your encounter with John is a feel-good moment. Here comes the bulldozer. There is nowhere to hide. Repent while you can because soon and very soon it is going to be too late to escape the consequences of the choices you have made and the fate you so roundly deserve.
“What shall I, frail man be pleading, who for me be interceding, when the just are mercy needing?”
And yet, Jesus says that while John is the last and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and that there is none born of woman who has arisen that is greater than John, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
How can that be? How can it be that one who so galvanizes to repentance is relegated to so low a place in Jesus’ vision of the kingdom?
For all his vision, for all his gumption, for all his stirring proclamation, how was it that John missed it? What did John fail to see?
He failed to see this: the positivity of conversion, the joy of transformation. John’s ministry and that of all the prophets is a sad commentary that the via negativa, the negative way, is a more powerful motivating factor in human life than that which is positive, hopeful and life-giving.
It is a whole lot easier to be against something that it is to be for something. It is a whole lot easier to be against sin than it is to be for transforming grace. It is a whole lot easier to reduce the dynamic ethic of Christianity to dogma and doctrine (“do’s and don’ts,” things done and left undone) than it is to be for the dignity of every human being. It is a whole lot easier to shut people out than it is to welcome the stranger. It is easier to say of the other, “you don’t belong here,” than it is to say “I can see the face of God in you.”
But the ethic of the kingdom as Jesus taught it was based on a positive dynamic. And John didn’t get it. And most of us have a hard time getting it too. It may be that love triumphs over fear, but there’s nothing quite like the cold icicle of fear in the very marrow of one’s bones to get our attention. Why is it that the still small whispering in your ear the middle of the night generally does not have the message, “you are loved, and all is right with the world?” It is because we, like John, have the propensity of listen to the negative and to give it more credence than the voice of hope.
As much as we might need the voice of John the Baptist, we also need to be redeemed from it. And we will not be redeemed from hearing that voice of the via negativita until we learn another discipline: and that is the gift of Advent. That is to learn to wait with eager longing for the voice of God. But to do that we have to learn a new skill, one that is hard to cultivate: to learn to wait with patient expectation.