In accordance with the law, the first son of the Duchess of Cambridge will be heir to the throne, even if he has an older sister. A couple of years ago an effort was made to change the law that the first child, regardless of its sex, would be the heir to the throne. It became even more urgent when the Duchess turned out to be pregnant. In an era of elected politicians, chosen because of their qualifications and political views, it looks quite strange that the only requirement to be a king or a queen is to be born into a particular family at a particular time. Everything else doesn’t matter, really.
In ancient Israel there were two hereditary roles: kingship and priesthood. The former was attributed to the tribe of Judah, the latter to the tribe of Levi. And, of course, limited only to the males. Regardless of their qualifications (or lack of them) they governed the people of Israel in earthly and spiritual matters respectively. The kings and the high priests, as chosen and appointed by God, were immune. Criticising them openly was a risky business; quite often the only ones who took that risk were men on a mission: the prophets. Their mission was not inherited; they were called and sent on a mission at God’s will, chosen from any tribe and from any way of life. The prophets somehow were the representatives of the otherwise helpless people.
In today’s gospel we can see a similar tension; common people had been expecting the coming of their liberator, and they were wondering whether John the Baptist was the one. He could easily have exploited that situation for his own benefit. But he was a man on a mission: ‘I baptise you with water, but someone more powerful is coming; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ His was a mission of preparing people to meet the One sent by God. John the Baptist in some ways shows the mission of the Church and its members: our call as Christians and as a community is preparing people to meet the One who can truly change our lives.
People were not gathering around John the Baptist just because he offered a rite of passage. His conduct, his way of life, had something attractive to people and appealing to them. He presented a particular vision of human life, and he presented it as a personal choice, made sometimes against mainstream conformity. He was a thorn in the side of the ruling noblemen and religious leaders, who would have prepared the common folk to carry on with the usual business. Any sign of religiously fuelled fervour could have endangered the social order from which they benefited.
John the Baptist’s mission was a peaceful one; he didn’t set people against each other. He didn’t call to any revolution other than a personal one, meant as a return to basic spiritual principles. In this respect, nothing has changed over the centuries. The Church’s mission is to attract people to the only One who can change their own lives for the better: Christ Jesus.