Sunday, January 19, 2014

Homily for 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jan. 19, 2014                                           
John 1: 29-34
Provincial House, New Rochelle

“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’” (John 1: 29).

Source unknown
The gospel for the so-called 2d Sunday of OT is always from John’s Gospel, regardless of whether we’re in the year of Matthew, as we are this year, or of Mark or Luke.  And it always continues the manifestation theme of the 2 preceding Sundays, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

So today.  John’s Gospel doesn’t have a baptismal scene.  Instead, we have John “testifying” that he “saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon” Jesus (1:32); and instead of a voice from heaven announcing either to Jesus (as in Mark and Luke) or to the bystanders (as in Matthew) that Jesus is the Father’s beloved Son, we have John identifying Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” as “the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit,” and as “the Son of God” (1:33-34).

In John the Evangelist’s telling of the story, John the Baptist begins his testimony by announcing, “I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel” (1:31).  How is it that John didn’t know Jesus?  Weren’t they kinsmen? (Luke 1:36)  Hadn’t he recognized Jesus even while both of them were still in their mothers’ wombs? (Luke 1:41-44).

When we read the gospels, we should read each in its own terms, not conflating one with another.  Here, we don’t assume that St. John knows all the traditions that St. Luke has preserved for us.  But even granting that there’s a blood relationship between John and Jesus, we wouldn’t know how much contact the 2 had in the 30 years after the Visitation.  Would the adult John, coming out of the wilderness to do his mission, know the adult Jesus, coming to the Jordan from Nazareth?

Supposing they’d had occasional meetings at family gatherings over the preceding 30 years, they wouldn’t have been frequent, given the distance between Nazareth in Galilee and Ain Karim in Judea (traditionally identified as Zechariah’s home).  Supposing he would have known his cousin by sight, would John have “known” Jesus?  We all know that we can be acquainted with someone for years, even live with him in community, and not really know him.  It’s this deeper knowledge that John seems to be speaking of when he confesses, “I did not know him.”  He did not know who Jesus of Nazareth really was.

But he has come to know him by revelation:  “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain,” and so he has come to understand that Jesus “is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit,” as John had already been preaching about the one, unknown to him up till then, to “come after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (1:30).

That much of John’s testimony is consistent with what we read in the Synoptics, even tho it’s expressed in a different form.  But in John’s Gospel John the Baptist manifests Jesus to the Jewish world with his personal testimony (in the Synoptics, the testimony comes only from heaven):  Jesus is the Lamb of God, and Jesus is the Son of God.

The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world, John proclaims (as we do daily at Mass).  The allusion probably is to the Passover lamb, whose blood is shed to mark the doors of the homes of the Hebrews so that the angel of death will pass them by; implicit is a link between the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and the liberation of Jesus’ followers from sin; a link between a life of freedom following the Passover and the freedom of the children of God, born of water and the Holy Spirit.

There could be other biblical allusions at play, as well, such as the ram who is substituted as a sacrifice in Isaac’s place (Gen 22:13) or the scapegoat who bears away the sins of all the people on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:7-10) or the servant led, silent as a lamb, to slaughter as he justifies many and takes away their guilt (Is 53:7,11).  In the Book of Revelation John the Evangelist, or some other John, presents the Lamb who has shed his blood as a conqueror, a redeemer, as the one who leads people to God, as one who is worthy of adoration and praise.

John the Baptist, then, is manifesting Jesus as the one who will save Israel in a way completely unexpected in the fervid time of Roman occupation, of Herodian oppression, of rising nationalistic expectations:  not driving away the Romans but taking away sin; offering himself as a sacrifice to set people free.

“I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (1:34).  In the Jewish tradition, the king was a son of God; those who faithfully kept the Law were children of God.  John the Evangelist presents John the Baptist as saying more than that.  Jesus is not a son of God but the Son of God (the Greek text uses the definite article), who “existed before me.”  The Gospel’s prolog has already introduced its readers to the pre-existing Word who became flesh and made his home among us, possessing “the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (1:14); the Word whose acceptance empowers all believers “to become children of God” (1:12).  Jesus, then, is not just a son of God but the only-begotten Son, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, with the power also to lead others into the divine family.

As a matter of history, we can be reasonably sure that John the Baptist didn’t grasp the divinity of Jesus.  That doesn’t change the truth of the words put into his mouth by the Evangelist.  Like John the Baptist, the earliest disciples came gradually to know him, to understand what sort of a Messiah he was, the meaning of the cross and resurrection, the nature of the redemption offered “to those who believe in his name” (1:12).

How do we know Jesus?  Who is he in our eyes, in our minds, in our hearts?  That’s pretty much the same question that he asked the apostles at Caesarea Philippi:  “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15).  Like John the Baptist, like the apostles, we can come to know him only gradually, by walking with him, by listening to him; like Mary, by pondering on these things in our hearts (Luke 2:19).  One commentary offers this suggestion:

This progressive knowledge of Jesus is the fruit of unceasingly renewed reading of the Gospels … as it is done, above all, in the framework of the liturgy, within a group, or in one’s “inner room” (Matt 6:6), by the light of the Spirit and in a prayerful climate.  This reading must be coupled with a conscious, full, and complete participation in the sacraments of the faith, which celebrate and unveil the mystery.[1]

… the mystery which will be fully made known to us, as St. Paul says, only when we see Jesus and his Father face to face (1 Cor 13:12), when we’re part of that great host gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev 22:3).
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
The Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck

            [1] Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year.  Volume 4: Ordinary Time, Year A (Collegeville, 1992), pp. 25-26.

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