On Matthew 3:1–2
St. John the Baptist is a major figure in the history of Israel, obviously an authentic Prophet, ranking with the greatest Prophets of the past. He takes up the hopes of the other, earlier prophets, and says that they are all to be fulfilled in Jesus. John’s witness is an extremely important indication, confirmation, that Jesus really is who he says he is; really is from God; really is the Messiah whom the Prophets foretold.
John’s baptism is also very important. It certainly wasn’t Christian baptism of course, but also certainly was a preparation for that. To be baptised by John meant a person was ready to receive the Messiah, whenever he came; a sign that the person was ready to believe in him when he would manifest himself, and to renounce all sin that’s incompatible with his holiness.
In today’s passage we read of how a number of Pharisees and Sadducees came to John. It would seem very odd for them to come for John’s baptism, since for St. Matthew Pharisees and Sadducees are defined precisely as those who would reject Jesus; who would refuse to believe in him, and who would even bring about his death.
So a more likely translation is that they came to him as he was baptising. That is: not to submit, but to observe, and criticise, and collect evidence.
This would certainly explain John’s fierce reaction to them. He denounces them as a brood of vipers, destined to be destroyed in the coming divine punishment. I think he’s not here referring primarily to their moral behaviour. It’s not that the Pharisees and Sadducees were irreligious – on the contrary, they were extremely religious. It’s not either that they were thieves or murderers or adulterers. Rather the point is that they claimed to be the guardians of Israel’s religion and hope; yet they would reject Jesus. For St. John, for St. Matthew, for the Catholic Church, to reject Jesus is to betray the whole purpose and goal and fulfilment of Israel.
So John warns them not to trust in their descent from Abraham. Here we have an anticipation, right at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, of a major theme in St. Paul. For a Jew, God’s covenant is exclusive: it pertains only to Abraham’s descendants according to the flesh. For a Christian, God’s covenant has become inclusive in Christ. It is now not for those who have physical descent from Abraham, but for those simply who have faith in Christ. To have faith in Christ is to be a true descendant of Abraham, our father in faith; not to have faith in Christ is in fact to renounce the faith of Abraham.
Sometimes you still hear people accuse St. Matthew of anti-Semitism, because of his very harsh language against the Jews. But the charge cannot possibly stick, because Matthew was a Jew, writing for Jews, from inside Judaism. He was perfectly aware that the Christian interpretation of Judaism is utterly radical, surprising, revolutionary. But he was also perfectly convinced it is the only true one. Hence the polemics against those who would argue against it on the basis of Jewish scripture and tradition.
We nowadays, who aren’t Jews, and who come to the whole problem from an entirely Christian perspective, may not of course use such harsh language against modern Jews. Our modern context is different, so the Catholic Church rightly seeks now not confrontation with Jews but dialogue and cooperation.
So as not to stop at the violent language of St. John the Baptist against those who will reject Jesus, we should just notice now his fervent words preparing those who will receive him to do so worthily.
We do so above all by repenting of our sins, by conversion, purification, holiness of life.
So let me finish by pointing towards one who had no need of such repentance, because she had no sin; whose paths did not need to be made straight, because they already were. Mary was the one who supremely needed to be ready to receive Jesus, and who most perfectly was ready. God himself prepared her through the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, which we will celebrate on Thursday.
The feast is on the 8th of December because that’s 9 months before 8th September, her birthday.
But it’s also good and appropriate that the feast always lands in Advent, because it reminds us of how we should try to be worthy to receive Jesus when he comes. We can’t of course deserve his coming, and the honour he will pay us thereby, any more than she could. The very idea is ridiculous. The absolute gratuity of grace is shown supremely in Mary’s case in that she was chosen and made holy before she was even conceived. Nevertheless: given that God chose to become a man and to live among us, and given that his grace is omnipotent; given also that grace makes use of nature, without destroying it: Mary was perfectly prepared to receive Jesus worthily.
She was filled with God, with no obstacle put in the way; she was filled with love, in perfect purity of heart; she was truly holy. So Mary was a tree, according to St. John the Baptist’s image, that produced good fruit, and so needed no cutting down. She was also the wheat which had no chaff to blow away, and which would be gathered safely and with joy into his barn.
All of this is a mystery for us to ponder, rejoice in, and imitate.
We want to conform ourselves as much as possible to Mary, in bearing the Lord of glory. So now we call upon her as our mother in the order of grace. We can do so because she truly is our mother: one who loves us, who wants to help us, and who will help us. May we all, with God’s grace, and through Mary’s intercession, be found worthy to meet Jesus when he comes, not through immaculate purity, but through accepting his forgiveness; not through bearing him physically as she did, but still through receiving him in his fullness, in faith and hope and love.