The critical question is this coming Sunday’s Gospel is the practical plea of the Baptist’s followers: “What should we do?” The crowd, like most of mankind, has it backwards. It’s not what should mankind do but rather what has God done that should be the first question on any believer’s lips. In the midst of the faith versus good works controversy that split Christianity in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent had the courage to teach solemnly that faith is the root and foundation of all justification. What starts as belief deepens into faith and then expresses itself in good works. This should be the normal progression of the Christian life. Too many Church-goers reverse the elements of the spiritual life and assume a number of well-intentioned good practices – daily Mass, the rosary, a good book, volunteering, social concerns – but their enthusiasm wanes; they get spent.
Certainly the Baptist gives very practical advice to his well-meaning crowd: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” To the tax-collectors, ““Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” And to the soldiers, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” But St. John also offers some even more vital guidance to his hearers, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The crowd would eventually learn, and modern believers must also learn, that the first step in the Christian life is opening one’s mind and heart to God, allowing the Holy Spirit and his fire to evoke not the question, “What can I do,” but rather the question, “What has God done?”
The Jewish religion did not begin with the keeping of the celebrated law which even to this day characterizes so much of Judaism. Certainly in Christ’s time, dietary laws, Sabbath laws, and laws about clean and unclean practices enveloped much of Jewish life. Yet what was at the heart of Judaism? Not laws, not works, not good deeds, rather the “Magnalia Dei,” the wonderful works of the Lord, were and still are at the heart of the Jewish tradition. The wonders of creation, the rescue of Noah, the intimacy of God with Abraham, the rescue of Jacob and his sons from famine, the selection of Moses, the release from Egyptian slavery, the trek through the wilderness, the gift of the Promised Land, the leadership of Joshua, David and the Maccabees: these were the wonderful works of God, the stunning happenings of salvation history, the goodness and kindness of God revealed through epic events. These actions were the first encounters of mankind with God and in pondering them the ancient Jews came to realize the magnificence of God, the splendor of God, and the glory of God, and, happily, the Fatherhood of God.
Authentic religion began then with revelation, with God revealing Himself to the ancient people through awesome experiences. The ardent celebration and consideration of these Biblical episodes awakened faith in this mighty God and then eventually led to respect for all that God had done and made, even toward one’s enemies, a lesson the ancients often neglected.
The Christian community has followed the same curriculum. The Christian community did not begin with attending daily Mass, reciting the Rosary, fasting during Lent and caring for the poor. Christianity began, again, with a consideration of the “Magnalia Dei,” the wonderful things that God has done for mankind through Christ. The Son of God taking on flesh; the blind seeing, the lame walking, the dead rising at the word of Jesus Christ; the agony in the garden, the carrying of the Cross, the crucifixion, the death, the burial and splendid resurrection of Christ; these Biblical events were the Good News, the Gospel, that would turn the minds and hearts of the first Christians toward authentic belief leading to fervent faith, and resulting in good works.
It is no accident that the oral proclamation of Scripture is integral to the celebration of every sacrament. Consideration of the wonderful works of God in history is foundational to an authentic Christian experience. Baptism, Eucharist, Penance, Confirmation, Matrimony, Unction, Ordination as well as quiet moments spent alone with God before the Blessed Sacrament and the early morning fingering of the Rosary should all be enjoyed with a Biblical context. Pondering Divine Revelation awakens belief which leads to a lively faith which results in good works. President Kennedy’s famous advice might well be revised: “Ask not what you can do for God, ask first what God has done for you.” God’s good news, considered devoutly, will surely lead believers to an authentic Christian faith.