- Look to east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God (Bar. 5:5)
St. Augustine of Hippo warns in a treatise on John: “… [O]f all vices this is the one that the shepherds must guard against most earnestly: seeking their own purposes instead of Christ’s, furthering their own desires by means of those persons for whom Christ shed his blood” (cf. the non-biblical reading in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for December 6, the memorial of St.Nicholas).
Such vice—such use of persons for one’s own self-interest—is, in Vincentian vocabulary, lack of simplicity. For simplicity, as St. Vincent de Paul taught, means in part that one has such purity of intention that one is focused solely on God, does everything for love of God and for no other end, avoids “human respect,” and never performs good deeds in order to be recommended for a higher position (cf. Father Robert P. Maloney, The Way of Vincent de Paul: A Contemporary Spirituality in the Service of the Poor [Brooklyn, N.Y.: New City Press, 1992], p. 38).
St. John the Baptist, admittedly a prophet rather than a shepherd, surely did not seek his own purposes or further his own desires. He was a man of simplicity. True to the prophecy about a messenger crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,” John saw to it that the “people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem,” who were flocking to him for baptism of repentance, did not focus on him.
John did not pretend to be who he was not, nor did he want to be taken for more than whom he really was (cf. also Jn. 1:20-28). Instead of calling attention to himself, he pointed to one coming after him, mightier than he, who would baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. John accepted his subordinate role, acknowledging his unworthiness to stoop and loosen the thongs of the one whose advent he was announcing and preparing people for.
And John practiced simplicity in the Vincentian sense too of having an unadorned lifestyle (cf. ibid., p. 39): he was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and fed on locusts and wild honey.
Such simplicity as St. John the Baptist’s undoubtedly makes for an effective preaching of the good news to the poor. Those whose lives match their words and who witness to the truth by speaking and practicing the truth and remaining in it, proclaim the gospel with power and authority (cf. ibid., pp. 53-56). Those who point out the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (cf. Jn. 1:29, 36), thus calling attention to the wounded healer, become effective instruments of him who says: “Comfort, give comfort to my people …. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed he has received from the hand of the Lord double for all hers sins.”
For, indeed, Jesus has already done all the atoning on behalf of us all. Sharing now in the sacrifice of Jesus, whose blood speaks more eloquently than Abel’s (Heb. 12:24), and becoming themselves the change they want to see, those imbued with the Baptist’ simplicity, single-minded purpose and focus on Jesus, help to bring down from the Mighty One—proclaimed great by the sinless and simple Mother of God and also by the devotees of the Virgin of Tepeyac—justice, peace and mercy for the simple and lowly. They also hasten the day when the awaited new heavens and new earth will begin here now and will blossom, in God’s own day or year, into full reality. The blood we drink, after all, is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, of a new beginning, of a new exodus.