Prepare the way of the Lord!
Don't you think John the Baptist (pointing the way to the Lord in this painting by Leonardo da Vinci) would have made a great Franciscan? Or, to be more chronological, don't you think Francis would have been a good disciple of John before the coming of the Lord?
After all, Francis would call his lay Third Order, us, his Seculars, "the Brothers and Sisters of Penance." We are an "Order of Penance." The entire Prologue of our SFO Rule contrasts between those "who do penance" and those "who do not do penance." Thus Chapter Two, The Way of Life, Rule Seven reads:
United by their vocation as "brothers and sisters of penance" and motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel calls "conversion." Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.
And what does John say? In what scholars say is the first written Gospel, the very first chapter, we read,
John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: 'One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit'" (Mark 1:4-8; all Biblical quotes are NAB Revised).
In Matthew's Gospel, John will say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 3:2). I don't see this as some moralistic browbeating to scare us into godliness. Rather, I think John is offering a realistic assessment of our human ways to God's Way and truly wants us humans to repent and turn to God. Don't John's words in Luke's Gospel seem less like finger wagging and more like good advice within reach of people honestly seeking how to convert from their sinful ways?
And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" He said to them in reply, "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He answered them, "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed." Soldiers also asked him, "And what is it that we should do?" He told them, "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages" (Luke 3:10-14).
St. Francis and all of us can surely admire John's great humility in face of the coming of the Lord.
You yourselves can testify that I said (that) I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease (John 3:28-30).
It's the same thing, isn't it? John realizes human unworthiness in face of the divine, just as he understands his own human insignificance before the coming of the Christ. Likewise, with an honest appraisal of our own human weakness and sincere need to turn away from sin to prepare the way of the Lord, let us look to our Father Francis and to the great Advent Apostle John the Baptist to see how we might decrease so that the Lord might increase in our lives.
Let us pray, "Dear Lord, in this holy Advent Season, let us prepare for the coming of the Lord by lowering the mountains of our pride and selfishness, by raising the valleys of our self-pity and despondency, by making straight the crooked ways of our self-will and sinfulness. Help us be always ready so that at the Lord's Coming we will found watchful and awake, humble and loving. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen."