St. Matthew compels us to come to grips with the great figure of John the Baptist. It is impossible to grasp the significance of Jesus without passing through the John the Baptist because he provides a lens through which Jesus is properly interpreted. Every single detail of this Gospel is worthy of our attention. Matthew tells us that John appeared as a preacher in the desert of Judea. What is it about the desert in the Bible? Moses spends years in the desert before taking up his work. Elijah journeys through a deserted place at a crisis point in his ministry. The Israelites have to pass through the desert for 40 years in order to get to the Promised Land. Jesus Himself spends 40 days and nights in the desert before beginning His public ministry. And at beginning of the Christian movement monks went into caves in the desert to find spiritual intimacy with God. What is it about the desert? The desert is the place of simplicity and poverty. In the desert everything is stripped down to the basics, a place where there are no worldly distractions and attachments. This bumps up against our secular experience, where we distract ourselves from the really fundamental questions of life. Think of all the things we are preoccupied with, like attachment to wealth, power, pleasure and honor. Those things are luring and tempting us all the time. But what is God saying, what is it that God wants us to?
We have to go into a silent and deserted place in order to hear God, to go to a place where distractions and attachments are set aside. That is why spiritual people have an attraction to the desert. Lent is a figurative desert time for Christians who prepare to commemorate Christ’s death on the Cross on Good Friday and His Resurrection at Easter. That is why we enter the Lenten desert and why we pray, fast and simplify our lives, because the culture runs up against all of these things with the attachments of wealth and power. Lent is the time when we strip ourselves down. What was the first thing the prophet says as he speaks out of the desert place? Reform your lives. This cuts to the heart of every single person, because we all know that our lives are not what they are supposed to be. The quality of love that should be present in each and every one of us (a complete, absolute and self-forgetting love) is not present. As St. Paul says, “We have all fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) We have all fallen victim to self-absorption, addiction and worldly attachments. So out of the desert comes this voice, out of that place we hear a voice that speaks a word of clarification and simplification: Reform your lives. Have you ever felt you were beyond redemption, that you can never change, you cannot be reformed? The Baptist says to you that it is never too late. No one is ever too far gone, because out of the desert place comes real reform and change. If we went into the desert we would hear that voice deep inside us as well. Reform means to change your attitude, to change your way of thinking, to change your way of perceiving the world. What does reform and repentance mean on the most fundamental level here? It has the same meaning as Lent: to stop thinking about your life as your project and start thinking that your life is not about you. Start thinking that your life belongs to God and is meant to serve God’s purposes. All of our diversions and attachments are subservient to the basic position that your life is not about you. Your life is not a project of self-satisfaction. The Lenten desert experience means that we need to change our minds and get a whole new perspective in saying that our attitudes are not all about us, but about God. We sometimes think, “Things aren’t going my way, people aren’t respecting me the way I should be respected, my career isn’t going on the path I want.” Lent reminds us of this question: who cares about any of that? All of it is trivial. Change your attitude. That is the voice that rings out in the desert, the very place of spiritual clarification.
Next, Matthew tells us something absolutely extraordinary, something that would have taken the breath away of those who heard it: “At that time in Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan people were going out to him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.“ This is what makes that so strange: the entire momentum of Jewish life was toward the Holy City and its Temple. The Temple was in almost a literal sense the dwelling place of God. It was the place where sacrifice was performed for the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, what is happening here is that a revolution was imminent. John the Baptist was communicating to the people that the new and definitive place of encounter was arriving. In fact, it had already arrived. Everything the Temple represented, namely forgiveness, reconciliation, union with God, instruction, judgment – all of that is now fully expressed in someone who is coming, and this someone John is announcing. Now we begin to understand some of the metaphors that John uses: “I am baptizing you with water, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Water baptism was a kind of cleansing in preparation for an encounter with God. It’s a way of preparing yourself. What John is telling us is that the one who is coming is so much more than just another prophet who speaks the Word of God. The one who is coming is the Word of God. He’s much more than a teacher who bears witness to the life of God because He is the very life of God. That’s why He can dip you into the very love of God as He baptizes you in the Holy Spirit. What He’s coming to do is to fill you up, body and soul, with the divine life, to set you on fire with a whole new matter of existence.
See how the rest of this Gospel is meant to share what that life really looks like. The divine life is restored in Christ precisely because He baptizes in the Holy Spirit. That’s why the people were coming out from Jerusalem to go see John, because what they had once sought in the Temple they can now find in the Christ. This prepares us then for the harsh metaphors that John uses, so that we can take them in with greater peace and understanding: “The axe lies at the root of the trees.” In other words, the Christ is coming to cut, divide and judge. Why? Not because He’s a masochist, but because when the divine light comes in, whatever is opposed to it must go out. This a basic metaphysical principle: if Christ comes to you, baptizing you with fire and the Holy Spirit, whatever it opposed to it must go out. That is why all hatred and self-absorption and egotism and violence and intolerance needs to be cut down. It is not God being cruel, but rather is this expulsive quality of divine grace. We then hear that, “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So it goes when the wind of the Holy Spirit comes, as He blows away all that is not of God and burns it in the fire. This is very good news for us this Lent, as we allow God to burn away all this pettiness and all of this lightness, and to let the Holy Spirit dwell within us as a fire. That is what will happen when Christ baptizes you with fire and the Holy Spirit, and John the Baptist is preparing us within our Lenten desert to hear that great truth.
Fr. Mark Murphy is the Undergraduate Chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Center.