The Gospel wastes no time. Before we know it a prophet stands before us - John the Baptist.
He stands in the desert of Judaea, wearing a garment made of camel-hair with a leather belt round his waist, and his food is locusts and wild honey.
Have you ever wondered why Matthew would go to the trouble of describing the clothing and the diet of John the Baptist? It's because they are both signs of repentance, and the penance that goes with it. John lived the message he preached.
In 1974 Pope Paul VI gave an address in which he said: Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.
Apparently this was true also of the people of 2000 years ago because, as the Gospel tells us: Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him.
They came from everywhere, attracted by the man John and the message he proclaimed. In fact, his whole lifestyle was already a message clearly spoken to all who came to know him.
John, like all prophets, is a divisive man. He stands between God and humanity and speaks the truth about both, not an easy or enviable commission.
John has spent years in the silence of the wilderness. From his earliest days in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, ever since the visit of the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of the Messiah, he has been filled with the Holy Spirit. He has understood the Scriptures and the ways of God. From the lofty pinnacle of his wisdom he has surveyed the landscape of poor humanity and understood deeply their, and our, most profound need. And what was it? Food? Security? Political freedom? Health?
He wastes no time telling us - Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and do it now!
The word repent inserts itself like door between two opposed realities - our sins, and the kingdom of heaven. It keeps them both apart and yet stands between them not as an unpassable obstacle but as the promise of reconciliation.
As he cries 'Repent!' he points with one hand to our sins and with the other to the approaching Kingdom. No niceties, no softening of the blow, no gentle preamble, no sensitivity to 'where I'm at', just - Repent!
John had no time for excuses or precious sensibilities. He had not come to suggest or invite, he had come to warn. 'Get off the tracks - the train is coming! Spare me the details of your life's story, we all have them, just get off the track!'
- But my husband is so difficult, he makes me so angry - Of course he does, just you make sure you repent!
- But I don't like Confession, it's so embarrassing - Yeah, not as embarrassing as hell, repent!
- But if you only knew the sufferings in my life - Yes, we all have them, repent!
- But I've tried so often and failed every time - Try again, repent!
- You just don't understand - I'm not here to understand, I'm here to tell you the kingdom is coming, I don't want you to miss out so, repent!
We are not accustomed to such uncompromising directness. We live in a world in which feeling has taken precedence over thought and if something makes us feel bad it can't be good or true. By canonising our feelings in this way we have subtly made them into gods, and when someone comes along with a truth we don't want to hear we complain: I feel excluded, I feel bullied, I feel uncomfortable.
No wonder John made so many enemies and no wonder he was soon silenced. Look at the way he spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders among the people: Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? But if you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit ...
Protestations of sorrow and repentance did not impress John. He knew all too well the rocky path that lies between repentance and its fruits, as he knew also our ability to kid ourselves. Unmasking our hypocrisy was John's calling - his service to us.
Let me conclude by pointing out another opposition in this Gospel, the one between heaven and hell. John, again, stands in the breach. His call to repentance is a warning to 'make straight' the path into the first, and to avoid the axe wielded by the one who is coming and the fire awaiting in the second.
Of course we are free to ignore John's warning or to 'explain' it away. The Advent choices, however, remain clear - repentance and the Kingdom or the axe and the fire.