As a child, I was a big fan of the landmark PBS Children’s Television Network program Sesame Street. With all due respect to Mr. Rogers and his pristine, idyllic neighborhood as well as some of the other lesser known Public Broadcasting offerings of the mid-late 70s (“Zoom!” anyone?) the fictional thoroughfare nestled presumably somewhere amidst the city streets of my native New York would captivate me for hours, with the muppets stealing the show, at least in my eyes.
Kermit the Frog was probably my favorite, although Oscar the Grouch, Ernie, and the violet-hued vampire brilliantly dubbed “The Count,” given his proclivity and passion for mathematics, also cracked my top 5 with relative ease.
....and then there was Grover.
This shaggy, disheveled, excitable, up-for-anything philosopher-slash-daredevil had to be inspired, I thought in later years, by one of Jim Henson’s whackier childhood cohorts, a “first man into the fire” sort, impulsive and passionate by nature, who zigged when the rest of the world zagged. Perhaps it was yesterday’s news of the passing of Carrol Spinney, the legendary puppeteer, cartoonist, author, and voice of both Oscar and Big Bird on Sesame Street, that caused this analogy to seep into my subconscious. But Grover reminds me in so many ways of our featured character in today’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12), none other than the intrepid and eccentric John the Baptist. In addition to possessing many of the unique characteristics of the peculiar blue muppet, John the Baptist had the guts of a hitman.
“You brood of vipers!” This is the greeting he boldly offers to the Pharisees and Sadducees who arrived, apparently uninvited, at his baptismal ceremony. Didn’t he know that these men possessed the power to have him arrested and imprisoned on the spot, and for no good reason at all? Clearly he did. But would he be intimidated? Let’s continue reading.
“Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
These men were certainly not accustomed to being talked to in this fashion. Being chastised and urged to repent by a man dressed in camel hair and noshing on locusts was not going to sit well with them.
In our 1st Reading (Isaiah 11:1-10) we read of the coming of this man that John the Baptist heralds, the man of whom he proclaims he is unworthy of carrying his sandals. Isaiah has this to say about Jesus:
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord. Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land's afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.”
Isaiah speaks of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, of which Jesus would possess in fullness and completion from the very moment he was conceived in the spotless womb of his mother...even before then in actuality. The same gifts that we strive to obtain and cultivate, oftentimes taking a lifetime to do so, oftentimes never obtaining them to the measure and degree of which we desire them, Jesus was endowed with. He poured them forth upon his people in reinforcing the very simple and unambiguous message of John the Baptist:
Repent, Jesus tells us, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Change you life so that you can thrive under my kingship. So that you can one day obtain eternal heavenly glory.
As Bishop Barron has been known to say, “Advent is best understood as a preparation for a revolution.” The liturgical readings selected for this time of the year, the Book of Isaiah, the story of John the Baptist, Our Blessed Mother Mary, whose Immaculate Conception we commemorate and celebrate tomorrow. Jesus of course. These stories sizzle with energy and electricity. When understood in the context of the time in which they came to fruition, we come to understand their revolutionary impact. We come to understand the glorious story of our very salvation, one rooted in God’s undying desire to forgive and reinvigorate those who come to him with an ardent desire to do his will to lead them down the path that leads to eternal life.
“O people of Zion, behold, the Lord will come to save the nations, and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard in the joy of your heart.” ~ Isaiah 30:19, 30