John the Baptist:
“More Than a Prophet”
VATICAN CITY, 14 DEC. 2007 (ZENIT)
Here is a translation of the second
Advent sermon delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa,
Pontifical Household preacher, in the presence of Benedict XVI and
members of the Roman Curia in preparation for Christmas.
* * *
Last time, basing myself on Hebrews 1:1-3, I attempted to sketch the
image of Jesus that we get when we compare him to the prophets. But
between the time of the prophets and that of Jesus there is a special,
pivotal figure: John the Baptist. Nothing in the New Testament
illuminates the newness of Christ better than comparison with the
The theme of fulfillment, of an epochal turning point, clearly
emerges in the texts in which Jesus himself speaks of his relationship
to the precursor. Today scholars recognize that these sayings are not
inventions of the post-Easter community, but derive their substance from
the historical Jesus. Indeed, some of them are inexplicable if they are
attributed to the subsequent Christian community.
A reflection on Jesus and John the Baptist is also the best way to
put us in tune with the Advent liturgy. In fact, the Gospels of the
second and third Sunday of Advent have the figure and message of the
precursor at their center. There is a progression in Advent: In the
first week the voice that stands out is the prophet Isaiah's, who
announces the Messiah from a distance; in the second and third weeks it
is that of the Baptist who announces the Christ as present; in the last
week the prophet and the precursor give way to the Mother, who carries
him in her womb.
1. The great turning point
The most complete text in which Jesus reflects on his relationship to
John the Baptist is the Gospel passage that the liturgy has us read next
Sunday at Mass. John, in prison, sends his disciples to ask Jesus: "Are
you the one who must come or should we wait for another?" (Matthew
11:2-6; Luke 7:19-23).
The preaching of the Rabbi of Nazareth whom he himself had baptized
and presented to Israel seems to John to go in a very different
direction from the fiery one that he had expected. More than the
imminent judgment of God, he preaches the mercy that is present, offered
to all, righteous and sinners.
The most significant part of the whole text is the praise that Jesus
offers of John after he had answered the question posed by John's
disciples: "Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you,
and more than a prophet [...]. Amen, I say to you, among those born of
women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least
in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the
Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the
violent are taking it by force. All the prophets and the law prophesied
up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is
Elijah, the one who is to come. Whoever has ears ought to hear" (Matthew
One thing is made plain by these words: Between the mission of John
the Baptist and that of Jesus something so decisive has happened that it
constitutes a parting of the waters, so to speak, between two epochs.
The focus of history has shifted: That which is important is not in a
more or less imminent future but "here and now," that kingdom that is
already operative in Christ. Between John's preaching and the preaching
of Jesus there is a qualitative leap: The littlest one of the new order
is superior to the greatest one of the old order.
The occurrence of this epochal turning point is confirmed in many
other contexts in the Gospel. We only need recall such words of Jesus
as: "Behold, there is one here greater than Jonah. [...] Behold, there
is one here greater than Solomon!" (Matthew 12:41-42). "Blessed are your
eyes because they see and your ears because they hear. Truly I say to
you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see and did
not see it, and longed to hear what you hear and did not hear it!"
(Matthew 13:16-17). All of the so-called parables of the kingdom
one thinks of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price
at bottom express the same idea, always in a new and different way: With
Jesus, history's decisive hour has struck, in his presence the decision
that determines salvation imposes itself.
It was this claim that brought Bultmann's disciples to break with the
master. Bultmann included Jesus in Judaism, making him a premise of
Christianity but not yet a Christian; he attributed the great turning
point to the faith of the post-Easter community. Bornkamm and Conzelmann
realized the impossibility of this thesis: The "epochal turning point"
already happened in Jesus' preaching. John belonged to the premises and
the preparation, but with Jesus we are already in the time of
In his book "Jesus of Nazareth," the Holy Father confirms this
conclusion of the most serious and up-to-date exegesis. He writes: "For
such a radical collision to occur, provoking the radical step of handing
Jesus over to the Romans, something dramatic must have been said or
done. The great and stirring events come right at the beginning; the
nascent Church could only slowly come to appreciate their full
significance, which she came to grasp as, in 'remembering' them, she
gradually thought through and reflected on these events [...]. No, the
greatness, the dramatic newness, comes directly from Jesus; within the
faith and life of the community it is further developed, but not
created. In fact, the 'community' would not have even emerged or
survived at all unless some extraordinary reality had preceded it."
In Luke's theology it is evident that Jesus occupies the "center of
time." With his coming he divided history in two parts, creating an
absolute "before" and "after." Today it is becoming common practice,
especially in the secular media, to abandon the traditional way of
dating events "before Christ" or "after Christ" ("ante Christum natum e
post Christum natum") in favor of the more neutral formula of "before
the common era" and "common era." It was a decision motivated by a
desire not to offend the sensibilities of people and other religions who
do not use Christian chronology; in that regard it should be respected,
but for Christians there is no question of the decisive role that
Christ's coming plays in the religious history of humanity.
2. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit
Now, as is our usual practice, we will pass from the exegetical and
theological certainty that has been established to our life today.
The comparison of John the Baptist and Jesus crystallizes in the New
Testament in the comparison of the baptism with water and the baptism of
the Holy Spirit. "I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you
with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16). "I did not
know him," the precursor says in John's Gospel, "but he who sent me to
baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend
and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit'" (John 1:33).
And Peter, in the house of Cornelius, says: "And I remembered the word
of the Lord how, he said, 'John baptized with water but you shall be
baptized with the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 11:16).
What does it mean to say that Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy
Spirit? The expression serves not only to distinguish Jesus' baptism
from John's baptism; it serves to distinguish the entire person and work
of Christ from that of the precursor. In other words, in all of his work
Jesus is the the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. Baptism has a
metaphorical meaning here; it means to inundate, to completely cover, as
water does to bodies that are immersed in it.
Jesus "baptizes in the Holy Spirit" in the sense that he receives and
gives the Spirit "without measure" (cf. John 3:34), he "pours out" his
Spirit (Acts 2:33) on all of redeemed humanity. The expression refers
more to the event of Pentecost than to the sacrament of baptism. "John
baptized with water but before many days you will be baptized in the
Holy Spirit" (Act 1:5), Jesus tells the disciples, obviously referring
to Spirit's descent at Pentecost that would happen in a few days.
The expression "baptize with the Spirit" therefore defines the
essential work of the Messiah, which already in the prophets of the Old
Testament appears as oriented toward the regeneration of humanity
through a great and universal outpouring of the Spirit of God (cf. Joel
3:1ff.). Applying all of this to the life and time of the Church, we
must conclude that the risen Jesus baptizes in the Spirit not only in
the sacrament of baptism, but, in a different way, also in other
moments: in the Eucharist, in listening to the Word and, in general,
through all the channels of grace.
If we want, and have enough faith, this very chapel in which we stand
can be the cenacle into which the Risen Lord enters, [despite] closed
doors, breathes on our faces and says almost begging us: "Receive the
St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "There is an invisible mission of the
Spirit every time there is a progress in virtue or an augmentation of
grace...; when someone moves to a new activity or a new state of
grace." The Church's liturgy itself inculcates this. All of its
prayers and its hymns to the Holy Spirit begin with the cry, "Come!":
"Come, O Creator Spirit!" "Come, Holy Spirit!" And those who pray this
way have already at sometime received the Spirit. This means that the
Spirit is something that we have received and that we must receive again
3. Baptism in the Spirit
In this context, we must say something about the so-called baptism in
the Spirit that for a century has become an experience lived by millions
of believers in almost all of the Christian denominations. This is a
rite made up of gestures of great simplicity, accompanied by
dispositions of repentance and faith in the promise of Christ: "The
Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him."
It is a renewal and an activation, not only of baptism and
confirmation, but of all the events of grace of one's state in life:
priestly ordination, religious profession, marriage. Besides making a
good confession, those who are involved prepare by participating in
catechism meetings in which they are put again in living and joyful
contact with the principal truths and realities of the faith: the love
of God, sin, salvation, new life, transformation in Christ, charisms,
the fruits of the Spirit. Everything is characterized by a profound
Sometimes, however, everything happens spontaneously, outside of all
formal contexts and it is like being "surprised" by the Holy Spirit. A
man gave this testimony: "I was on a plane and I was reading the last
chapter of a book on the Holy Spirit. At a certain point it was as if
the Holy Spirit came out of the pages of the book and entered into my
body. Tears streamed from my eyes. I began to pray. I was overcome by a
power quite beyond me."
The most common effect of this grace is that the Holy Spirit passes
from being a more or less abstract object of faith, to being a fact of
experience. Karl Rahner wrote: "We cannot deny that here below man can
have experiences of grace that give him a feeling of liberation, open
totally new horizons to him, make a deep impression on him, transform
him, shaping, even over a long period of time, his deepest Christian
attitude. Nothing prohibits us from calling such experiences baptism in
Precisely through that which is called "baptism in the Spirit," there
is an experience of the anointing of the Holy Spirit in prayer, of his
power in pastoral ministry, of his consolation in trials, of his
guidance in decisions. Before his manifestation in charisms it is thus
that he is experienced: as Spirit who interiorly transforms us, gives us
a taste of the praise of God, opens our mind to the understanding of the
Scriptures, teaches us to proclaim Jesus "Lord" and gives us the courage
to assume new and difficult tasks in the service of God and neighbor.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the retreat that gave birth, in
1967, to the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church, which is
estimated to have touched no fewer than 80 million Catholics in a few
decades. This is how one of the people who was present at that first
retreat describes the effects of baptism in the Spirit on himself and on
"Our faith has come alive, our believing has become a kind of
knowing. Suddenly, the world of the supernatural has become more real
than the natural. In brief, Jesus Christ is a real person to us, a real
person who is Our Lord and who is active in our lives. [...] Prayer and
the sacraments have become truly our daily bread instead of practices
which we recognize as 'good for us.' A love of Scripture, a love of the
Church I never thought possible, a transformation of our relationships
with others, a need and a power of witness beyond all expectation, have
all become part of our lives. The initial experience of the baptism in
the Spirit was not at all emotional, but life has become suffused with
calm, confidence, joy and peace. ... We sang the 'Veni Creator Spiritus'
before each conference and meant it. We were not disappointed. We have
also been showered with charismata. This also puts us in an ecumenical
atmosphere at its best."
We all see with clarity that these are precisely the things that the
Church needs today to proclaim the Gospel to a world that has become
wayward to the faith and the supernatural. We do not say that everyone
is called to experience the grace of a new Pentecost in this way.
However, we are all called not to remain outside this "current of grace"
that flowed through the post-Conciliar Church. John XXIII spoke, in his
time, of "a new Pentecost"; Paul VI went beyond this and spoke of "a
perennial Pentecost," a continual Pentecost. It is worthwhile to listen
again to the words he pronounced during a general audience:
"On several occasions we have asked about the greatest needs of the
Church. [...] What do we feel is the first and last need of this blessed
and beloved Church of ours? We must say it, almost trembling and
praying, because as you know well, this is the Church's mystery and
life: the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He it is who animates and sanctifies
the Church. He is her divine breath, the wind in her sails, the
principle of her unity, the inner source of her light and strength. He
is her support and consoler, her source of charisms and songs, her peace
and her joy, her pledge and prelude to blessed and eternal life. The
Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words
on her lips, prophecy in her outlook. [...] The Church needs to
rediscover the eagerness, the taste and the certainty of the truth that
The philosopher Heidegger concluded his analysis of society with the
alarmed cry: "Only a god can save us." We Christians know this God who
can save us, and who will save us: It is the Holy Spirit! Today
something called "aroma therapy" is widely popular. It uses essential
oils that emit a perfume to maintain health and as therapy for certain
disturbances. The Internet is full of advertising about aroma therapy.
There are perfumes for physical maladies, like stress; there are also
"perfumes for the soul"; one of these is supposed to help us achieve
Physicians discourage this practice, which is not scientifically
confirmed and which in fact, in some cases, provokes counter
indications. But what I would like to say is that there is a sure,
infallible aroma therapy that does not provoke counter indications: that
one made up of a special aroma, the "sacred chrism of the soul" that is
the Holy Spirit! St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote: "A perfumed ointment
('myron') was poured upon the Lord's head to breath incorruptibility on
the Church!" Only if we also receive this "aroma" can we be "the
sweet odor of Christ" in the world (2 Corinthians 2:15).
The Holy Spirit is a specialist above all in healing the sicknesses
of marriage and family. Marriage consists in giving oneself to another;
it is the sacrament of making oneself a gift. Now, the Holy Spirit is
the gift made person; he is the giving of the Father to the Son and the
Son to the Father. Where he comes the ability to make oneself a gift is
reborn and with it the joy and the beauty of living together for husband
and wife. The love of God that he "pours out into our hearts" revives
every other expression of love and that of conjugal love in the first
place. The Holy Spirit can truly make the family "the principal agent of
peace" as the Holy Father defines it in the message for the next World
Day of Peace.
There are numerous examples of dead marriages resurrected to new life
by the action of the Spirit. I recently received the moving testimony of
a couple which I want to show on my television program on the Gospel for
the feast of the Baptism of the Lord ...
Naturally, the Spirit also revives the life of consecrated persons,
which consists in making one's life a gift and an oblation "of sweet
odor" to God for our brothers (cf. Ephesians 5:2).
4. The new prophecy of John the Baptist
Returning to John the Baptist, he can show us how to carry out our
prophetic task in today's world. Jesus defines the Baptist as "more than
a prophet," but where is the prophecy in his case? The prophets
announced a future salvation; John indicates one that is present. In
what sense, then, can he be called a prophet? Isaiah, Jeremiah and
Ezekiel helped the people to go beyond the barrier of time; John the
Baptist helps the people to go beyond the more difficult barrier of
contrary appearances, of scandal, of banality and poverty with which the
fateful hour manifests itself.
It is easy to believe in something grandiose, divine, when you
project into the indefinite future: "in those days," "in the last days,"
in a cosmic framework, with the heavens that distill sweetness and the
earth that opens to allow the Savior to grow. It is more difficult when
you have to say: "Look! It is he!" and that of a person about whom
people know everything: where he is from, what used to be his job, who
is his mother and father.
With the words: "There is one among you whom you do not know!" (John
1:26), John the Baptist has inaugurated the new prophecy, that of the
time of the Church, which does not consist in proclaiming a future and
distant salvation, but in revealing the hidden presence of Christ in the
world. In taking away the veil from the eyes of the people, he upsets
the indifference, repeating with Isaiah: "See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth. Do you not see it?" (cf. Isaiah 43:19).
It is true that 20 centuries have passed and we know many more things
about Jesus than about John. But the scandal has not been removed. In
John's time the scandal derived from the physical body of Jesus, from
his flesh so similar to ours, except in sin. Even today it is his body
that causes difficulties and scandalizes: his mystical body, so similar
to the rest of humanity, included sin.
"Jesus' testimony," we read in the Book of Revelation, "is the spirit
of prophecy" (Revelations 19:10), the spirit of prophecy is required to
bear witness to Christ. Is this spirit of prophecy in the Church? Is it
cultivated? Or do we believe, implicitly, that we can do without it,
depending more on human expedients?
In 1992 there was a retreat for priests in Monterrey, Mexico, on the
occasion of the 500th anniversary of the first evangelization of Latin
America. There were 1,700 priests and about 70 bishops present. During
the homily of the concluding Mass I spoke about the urgent need that the
Church has for prophecy. After Communion there was prayer for a new
Pentecost in small groups scattered throughout the great basilica. I
remained in the presbytery. At a certain moment a young priest came up
to me in silence, knelt down in front of me and with a look I will never
forget said to me: "Bendígame, Padre, quiero ser profeta de Dios!"
"Bless me, Father, I want to be a prophet for God!" A chill went down my
spine because I saw that he was plainly moved by grace.
We can with humility make that priest's desire our own: "I want to be
a prophet for God." Little, unknown to anyone, it does not matter, but
one who, as Paul VI said, has fire in his heart, words on his lips, and
prophecy in his outlook.
* * *
 Cf. J. D.G. Dunn, "Christianity in the Making, I: Jesus
Remembered," Eerdmans, 2003, Part 3, Ch. 12.
 Benedict XVI, "Jesus of Nazareth," Doubleday, 2007, 324.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, "Summa theologiae," I, q. 43, a. 6, ad 2.
 In "New Covenant," June, 1984, 12.
 K. Rahner, "Erfahrung des Geistes: Meditation auf Pfingsten,"
 Testimony as reported by P. Gallagher Mansfield, "As by a New
Pentecost," Steubenville 1992, 25f.
 General audience of 29 November 1972 ("Insegnamenti di Paolo VI,"
Vatican, X, 1210f.).
 St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Ephesians," 17.