Often today we hear people say that some idea or movement is “prophetic,” or that “So-and-so is a real prophet.” In the case of a person, what’s meant is that he’s a “radical”; that is, that he stands up to the powers-that-be, and challenges the status quo.

Our culture idolizes “prophets” and “prophetic” movements. Our heroes are “radicals,” and our history is constant change. Because these notions are so deeply held and so widespread, we’d better be sure that they’re based on a true picture of the prophet.

For that, of course, we look to the Bible, and especially, in the season leading up to Christmas, to the figure of John the Baptist, who is the last and greatest of the prophets. At first, we might be tempted to see him in terms of the secular stereotype we’ve created. We’re told he eats strange food, lives in the wilderness, and denounces the ways of the establishment. But John is not a tofu-eating, tree-hugging, protest-marching rebel. The message he preaches, which is at the heart of the Gospel, tells it all: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.”

This is the message of the true prophet, the real radical. This is what is proclaimed by those who realize that we live in a fallen world, that each of us is in need of the redemption won for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

And these are exactly the words nobody wants to hear, because they call us to conversion. These are the words which are unsettling to the establishment.

But who is the establishment? The government? the rich? the news media? the abortion industry? In a way it can be any or all of the above. But we shouldn’t forget that the “establishment” is also you and I – it is every man who tries to hold onto power against the claims of truth and love, against the Kingdom of God, and everyone who refuses to admit that he is totally dependent on God.

We can test the claims of any “prophetic” person today by the standard of John the Baptist. We can ask ourselves, “Does this person want change for the sake of change, or does he want change for the sake of holiness? Does his message require conversion? or is it an easy out, a way to blame anyone but ourselves for our problems? Does it bring us closer to God? and does it remind us of the necessity of obeying His Commandments?”

It’s important for all of us, young and old, to know what a real prophet is, since we have no shortage today of would-be prophets today, even in the Church. The news media are constantly featuring some “expert” who rejects traditional Christian morality on sexuality, or abortion, or just about anything else. But this isn’t news! There have always been people who don’t believe, and there always will be. What’s news is that there are intelligent people who do believe, and who can defend their faith.

And people are always citing statistics showing that many ordinary Christians don’t live according to the faith they profess. But that’s not radical; that’s just trendy. What’s radical is that some people actually do live their faith fully, in spite of enormous opposition.

Which brings us to this month’s editorial cartoon. In the last century, the family has gone from being recognized as the foundation of society to being scorned as an out-dated instrument of discrimination and oppression. Those precious families who understand their vocation from God are looking ahead to the new millennium with a mixture of anxiety and hope: anxiety, in that the culture of death seems only to be getting stronger; but also hope, that the story of the next 1,000 years will ultimately be written by those who know that the family was ordained by God from the beginning, and can never be completely wiped away from human hearts. Those few families who dare to live out that reality here and now are among the most truly prophetic forces in our society.

The message of any true prophet, and the truth which every Christian family must live by and give witness to, is the message of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand!” Anything else, any message which doesn’t acknowledge the reality of sin and our need of God’s mercy, isn’t prophetic or radical at all. It’s just the same old thing, which the world recycles in every time and place, incapable of effecting any real change, or giving us any real hope.