2nd Sunday of Advent, Mark 1:1-8
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
St. John the Precursor is a central figure of the Advent season and his baptism is set before us not only this Sunday but also the following. But why was John sent to baptize in the first place?
What was the value of John’s baptism? Was it a sacrament? Did it forgive sins? Did it confer grace? Why did John baptize? We will see that our answer directs us to the devotion with which we must receive our Lord in Holy Communion, and the role that confession plays in preparing the way of the Lord.
Four reasons for John’s baptism
St. Thomas Aquinas, following the Church Fathers, enumerates four reasons for John’s baptism (ST III, q.38, a.1):
1) Since it was through being baptized by John that Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism, it is clearly necessary that John should have baptized. Nor would it have been sufficient for John to baptize the Savior alone, since this would make the baptism of John seem to be more precious than that of Jesus – since, John’s baptism would have been applied solely to the God-man, but the baptism of Christ would be applied to many. Further, John led others to the baptism of Christ through his baptism; and thus, it was necessary that others than the Lord should be baptized by him.
2) John baptized in order that Christ might be manifested, for it was through his baptism that the Savior was shown to all as the Beloved Son of the Father. Further, John announced to the crowds who came to him that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and that it was upon our Savior that John saw the Holy Spirit descend in the form of a dove and remain upon him.
3) John baptized that, by his baptism, he might accustom people to the baptism of the Lord. Indeed, in contrast to the ritual cleansings of the Pharisees, John’s baptism emphasized spiritual conversion. And thus, by gradual steps, the Lord led the people from the purely exterior rituals of the Old Law, to the Sacraments of the New which confer interior grace by the exterior words and actions. (though, to be clear, some of the sacraments of the Old Law did indeed confer grace; but that is another discussion).
4) Finally, John baptized in order that he might induce men to do penance and so to prepare themselves to receive the baptism of the Lord.
John’s baptism did not give grace or forgive sin, but it did prepare the way of the Lord
Still, as valuable as the baptism of John was, it must be admitted that it did not confer grace or forgiveness of sins. Certainly, the repentance that often accompanied the baptism did bring about grace and redemption; but the baptism itself was utterly void of any and all conferral of grace. It is for this reason that St. Thomas states that, “The baptism of John was not a sacrament properly so called, but a kind of sacramental, preparatory to the baptism of Christ.” (ST III, q.38, a.1 ad 2)
Bl. John Paul II: On preparing for communion
The baptism is John is presented to us in order that we might head his words to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts. Indeed, the best way to be prepared for the second coming is to be united with Christ now; and the best way to succeed in meditating upon Christ in the mysteries of his conception and birth, is to welcome the Savior’s hidden advent (coming) into our hearts now.
Most especially, we want to receive communion with particular devotion during this holy season – since communion is the most precious and intimate moment of receiving Christ into our hearts (not only by grace, but according to substance).
In regard to making worthy communions (and, we add, especially during Advent), Pope John Paul II offers advice regarding the preparation and repentance necessary to approach the sacrament:
“And keep in mind that the teaching of the Council of Trent on the need for confession of all mortal sins still holds and will always hold (sess. XIV, chap. 5 and can. 7). The norm taught by St. Paul and by the same Council of Trent, according to which the worthy reception of the Eucharist must be preceded by the confession of sins when one is conscious of mortal sin, is and always will be in force in the Church (sess. XIII, chap. 7 and can. 11)” (Address to penitentiaries of the four major basilicas in Rome, 30 January 1981).
Thus, it is very much in imitation of St. John the Baptist that the pastors of the Church often offer numerous penance services during the season of Advent – for it is through the sacrament of confession in Advent, that the soul is most well prepared for a fruitful Christmas communion.
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