Forgiveness of Sins: The Ministry of John the Baptist
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her” (Luke 1:57-58).
True gatherings of the friends and families of Christians should have for their object to celebrate the mercy that God has shown to us. Without this object, the congratulations we receive have nothing solid or sincere about them and are vain things.
God weaves the fabric of his designs in a wonderful order. He intended the birth of John the Baptist to be renowned and the birth of his Son to be celebrated in the prophecy of Zechariah. It was important to the plan of God that the one he would send to announce his Son to the world should be famous from his birth. So here, under the pretext of ordinary civility, God gathers together those who would be the witnesses of the glory of John the Baptist, those who would speak of and remember his birth. For all of them were amazed, and the miracles that were seen at his birth “were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:65-66). Let us accustom ourselves to noting that the actions that seem most ordinary are secretly directed by the order of God and serve his designs without our noticing it, in such a way that nothing comes to pass by mere coincidence.
“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, ‘Not so; he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your kindred is called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, ‘His name is John’ ” (Luke 1:5963). This decision gave all to understand that the name had come from above. “And fear came on all their neighbors” (Luke 1:65). The name John signifies grace, piety, and mercy. God predestined this name for the precursor of his grace and mercy.
It appears that Zechariah, to whom they spoke by signs, had become not only mute by his incredulity, but that the angel had also struck him deaf. Yet his hearing was restored to him at the same time as his power of speech, when he had obeyed the angel by giving his son the name John. Obedience thus cured the evil that had been caused by his lack of faith.
The Prophet of the Most High
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76), his own prophet, the prophet par excellence, a prophet and “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:9), as the Savior himself would call him, because not only would he announce the Savior as one who is about to come, but he would point him out to the people as the one who had come. “You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76).
Consider how Zechariah speaks of Jesus Christ, calling him the Most High and the Lord; that is to say, in one sole verse he has twice called him God. Here then is the character of the prophecy of John the Baptist, distinctly marked out by Zechariah: to go before the Lord to prepare his way. And this character is taken from two ancient prophecies, one being Isaiah’s: “A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight . . . a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3; cf. Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). The other was from Malachi: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Mal. 3:1).
Thus this learned priest explains the mission of his son and its proper character by reference to the prophets. It is “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins (Luke 1:77). This is the proper ministry of Saint John the Baptist, of whom Saint Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus” (Acts 19:4).
Come then to learn this great science, which is the science of salvation. Let us learn that it consists chiefly in the remission of sins, a mercy of which we stand in need our entire lives. Indeed, our justice is more a question of the remission of sins than of the perfection of our virtues.
He is the one who made Saint Paul say, following David: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin” (Rom. 4:7-8; Ps. 32:1-2). What we must understand is that not being able to be without sin, our true science is the one that teaches us to purify ourselves more and more every day, by saying with David: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity” (Ps. 51:2).
This science is in Jesus Christ, of whom it is written: “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). Thus, it is in Jesus Christ that is found the true science of the remission of sins, which he has expiated by his blood, but John prepared his way to show that it would be in Jesus that our sins would be forgiven.
Let us then spend our whole lives in penitence, inasmuch as the science of our salvation consists in the remission of sins. Let us not glory in a justice as imperfect as our own, for even the most perfect in this life should still fear to be overwhelmed by the multitude of his sins, if he does not take care continually to expiate them by penance and alms-giving. This is the science that Saint John preached when he cried out in the desert, his voice echoing throughout all Judea: “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
“From the bowels of mercy of our God,” viscera misericordiae: here alone do we find the remission of our sins (cf. Luke 1:78). Whence it is, Zechariah continues, that “the day shall dawn upon us from on high,” oriens ex alto. Jesus Christ is the true Orient, the true dawn, “the sun of righteousness” who “shall rise” (Mal. 4:2) “to give light,” continues Zechariah, “to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).
Although you are continually reminded about the ongoing need for the remission of sins, do not doubt that justice is infused in your hearts by Jesus Christ. He took the name of Orient, or dawn, so that he might show us that he is a light dawning for us. “He was the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). Just as the rising sun dissipates the shadows by spreading forth the light that fills the universe, so also the true Orient, when he comes forth from the bosom of the Father to enlighten us, remits our sins by replacing them with the light of justice, by which we ourselves become light in our Lord. For, as Saint Paul says, “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8). Not at all in yourselves: it is in Jesus Christ that you learn to walk always with your eyes open and to direct your gaze always toward him, by a good and right intention, from which will follow, in your whole body and your whole person, an eternal light and a luminous torch that enlightens you.
“To guide our feet into the way of peace.” O peace, my heart’s desire! O Jesus, you who are my peace! You who put me at peace with God, with myself, and with the whole world, and thus make peace both in heaven and on earth! (cf. Col. 1:20). When will it come to pass, O Jesus?
When will it come to pass, that by faith in the remission of sins, by the tranquility of my conscience, by a sweet confidence in your favor, and by an entire acquiescence in your eternal will for all the events of my life — when will I possess this peace?
Art for this post on the ministry of John the Baptist: Cover of Meditations for Advent used with permission; Nacimiento de San Juan Bautista (Birth of Saint John the Baptist [The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness]), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, circa 1655, PD-US author’s term of life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.
Read more from Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet on the forgiveness of sins HERE.