When there are only winners

Al Cariño
Second Sunday of Advent
Reproduced with Permission

All four gospels witness to the truth that the story of Jesus cannot be told without first speaking about John the Baptist. Jesus and John are the two figures that stand out at the beginning of the Christian story.

In todays's gospel reading (Mk. 1:1-8), Mark making use of a quote from Isaiah: "Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you... A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'" Isaiah's use of the words "Prepare the way" has reference to a "sacred highway" built for processions honoring the Babylonian god Mardok. He envisioned that a similar kind of highway would be built for the Lord to lead his people back from exile into a new life in Israel. Now Mark asserts that it is John who is missioned to prepare the "way" for God's coming in Jesus.

How did John prepare for his mission? He lived austerely and prayerfully in the desert. It was amidst this that the word of God came to him in prayer. And what God revealed to him became his message to the people of Israel to help them make the Lord's path straight for His coming. In due time, the people who hungered for nourishment with the word of God flocked to the desert to listen to him.

What did he preach? He preached a baptism of repentance and those who accepted it were baptized in the river Jordan. The immersion in water was an external sign of the sincere desire of sinners to have a change of heart. In itself this action did not forgive people's sins. It was just a preparation for the time when He Who could really forgive sins would come. And when He, namely Jesus, did come, it would be John who would point Him out to the people.

It is easy to see the dynamics in the relationship between John and Jesus. If it was John who pointed to Jesus, it was Jesus who came as the Lord's Anointed. If John's baptism of water only symbolized the forgiveness of sins, it was Jesus' baptism in the Holy Spirit that actually brought about forgiveness of sins and a new life -- divine life.

We can learn much from this partnership of John and Jesus. Though John had his own disciples and large numbers of people followed him, he never claimed that it was he who was to come. Rather, he humbly admitted, "One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.... I must decrease while he must increase." John understood his role in the larger plan of God -- to point Jesus out -- and was happy with it. Jesus' greatness did not in any way diminish his importance. In fact, John was important precisely because of who Jesus was -- God's Anointed One.

As one writer has said, John's humble attitude is a challenge to us to foster the greatness in others without feeling threatened about the value of our own contribution; to be free to celebrate the importance of others because we have our sense of our own worth and value before God. Because John was this and more, it is not surprising that Jesus returned the favor later when He told a crowd that there was no mother's son who was greater than John.

More specifically, John's humble attitude challenges us in the way we relate with others. For example, isn't it true that we sometimes feel angry when someone is genuinely praised since we feel that it somehow diminishes our own value and self-worth? Or if the praise is deserved, we ask why he is singled out when we are just as deserving. Moreover, how often have we withheld praise for fear that "it will just go to his head?" Have we forgotten what genuine praise does to us, namely, that it points to our potentials rather than our limitations, that it sends us a powerful message to strive to be and do better?

Conversely, does not our generosity in recognizing the goodness in others and the good they do help call out the best in them? Thus in mutually recognizing and appreciating these in each other, there are only winners.

This recognition sincerely made is really just a very simple act. But when also extended to groups of peoples -- a sports team of young people, a group doing service to the community or church, workers seeking better working conditions, a minority group asking for equal treatment and respect for their way of life, etc., -- it can go a long way in bringing about an atmosphere of care and respect for one another and ultimately for reconciliation and peace.

During this season of Advent, let us make all others -- be they individuals or groups -- winners by showing appreciation for the goodness in them and the good they do. Then all of us in turn may be led to thank God for gifting us with His Son, the Prince of Peace, on the first Christmas.