by Father Mike Stubbs
While formulating a parish mission statement, we came across the following: “The church does not have a mission. The mission has a church.”
That saying makes clear that the church should serve the mission entrusted it by God, and not the other way around. At the same time, a pithy saying can point the church, or even an individual, in the right direction. That was also true 2,000 years ago.
All four Gospels associate John the Baptist with this quotation from Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Sunday’s Gospel reading — Jn 1:6-8, 19-28 — takes this one
In the case of Matthew, Mark and Luke, that quotation appears as an editorial comment to describe John the Baptist. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, has John the Baptist apply the quotation to himself: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Did the historical John the Baptist adopt that quotation as his mission statement, or did John’s Gospel ascribe those words to him to reflect the early Christian community’s understanding of that important figure? We cannot give a firm answer. At the same time, it is interesting to note that another religious sect with possible links to John the Baptist did describe itself in terms of that quotation.
The writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, usually identified as the Essenes, lived on the shores of the Dead Sea, near the caves where eventually they hid the scrolls during the upheavals of the ’70s. They had decided to separate themselves from the rest of Jewish society, to move out into the desert and to establish a community purified from worldly contamination.
There they would prepare for the end times, for the final confrontation between good and evil.
Since they chose the desert as the place to accomplish this, it was natural for them for characterize their mission by the same Isaiah quotation we associate with John the Baptist. That is why we find the following written in one of their scrolls, “The Rule of the Community”:
“When such men as these come to be in Israel, conforming to these doctrines, they shall separate from the session of perverse men to go to the wilderness, there to prepare the way of truth, as it is written, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
Interestingly, the Essenes did not single out any one individual as accomplishing this task, as did the early Christian community with John the Baptist. Instead, the Essenes identified themselves collectively as the voice in the desert, which would prepare the way of the Lord.
And what steps would they take to fulfill that mission? The same document goes on to explain: “This means expounding the Law decreed by God through Moses for obedience, that being defined by what has been revealed for each age, and by what the prophets have revealed by his holy spirit.” In other words, the Essene community would interpret the Bible. That correct understanding would prepare the world for the coming of the Lord.
Contrast that approach with the fire-and-brimstone preaching of John the Baptist against sin. While he also chose the desert as his dwelling place, he welcomed visitors and engaged in a vigorous dialogue with them. He saw the desert, not as a place to hide, but rather as a place where he could battle with worldly powers.
The words of Isaiah also challenge us as a community to prepare the way for the Lord. In that respect, we imitate the Essenes, who applied those words to themselves as a community. At the same time, that does not mean that we take exactly the same path.
There is no reason for us to separate ourselves completely from the world, to establish a Catholic ghetto, to proclaim a truth that only we will hear. Instead, like John the Baptist, we engage in vigorous dialogue with the world, to bring it to a change of heart.