3d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 14, 2014
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“He came to testify to the light, so that all might believe thru him” (John 1: 7).
Advent points us toward 3 comings of Christ our Savior: his return on the Last Day as king and judge of the universe; his appearance at the Jordan River and the start of his public ministry; and his birth at Bethlehem.
Two of those comings are historical; they’ve already happened, and we recall them and try to let them become a present part of our lives. The 3d is somewhere in the future—how far, we have no idea; but we firmly believe that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”
Our liturgy in the 1st weeks of Advent stresses Christ’s return in glory as our judge, with his public appearance in Israel as a kind of secondary theme. But gradually the emphasis shifts. Thus today our 2d reading, from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, refers to “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the end of history; but the 1st reading, from the prophet Isaiah, presents to us the very passage that Jesus read and announced in a synagog as he started his public ministry of preaching, healing, and giving people an experience of God’s personal love for them, while the gospel reading presents to us, for a 2d straight week, the preaching of John the Baptist that prepares the way for Jesus’ coming.
|John the Baptist preaching, by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607)|
John the Baptist comes preaching a message of repentance and gives people a symbolic way of demonstrating repentance, viz., baptism. His symbolic action is just to prepare people for “the real deal,” the one who will give them the Holy Spirit (as we heard last week [Mark 1:8]); it’s the Spirit, not John’s water, that effectively takes our sins away and unites us with God as his children.
But the Jewish authorities wonder about John and investigate him: “The Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him, ‘Who are you? Are you Elijah, or the Prophet? What do you have to say for yourself?’” (John 1:19-22). Who is this guy? That’s what we hear in the gospel today.
Some clarifications are in order. When St. John refers to “the Jews” in his Gospel, he almost always means the official leaders of the Jewish people, the leaders who were hostile to Jesus. It should be obvious that he doesn’t mean the entire Jewish people; Jesus, Mary, and the apostles, after all, were Jews too, and so were all of his early disciples.
The questions about Elijah and “the Prophet” refer to interpretations of Old Testament passages that seemed to foretell that Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah. Later on, Jesus in fact will say that John the Baptist fulfilled that role, and that’s how we today see John. A “prophet like Moses” also was mentioned as a possible forerunner of the Messiah or even a 2d Moses who would deliver God’s people from their afflictions.
To all of that, as we heard, John says “no” repeatedly. He’s none of those figures. He is himself, and he knows just who that is. A famous political figure once sloganed, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” John the Baptist passes on that sort of thing. He has no illusions of grandeur. He’s not looking to be a celebrity or cultural icon. “I’m not worthy to untie the sandal strap” of the one who’s coming, which means he sees himself as less even than a slave (slaves had the duty of helping masters with their footwear).
How does John know who he is? How is he so firmly grounded as a person? Remember where he came from: the desert. What was he doing out there? The Scriptures don’t tell us precisely. Luke comes closest, after the story of John’s birth: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (1:80). We associate the desert with prayer, fasting, penance, combat with the devil—such as Jesus underwent after his baptism by John. So John’s identity is grounded in his relationship with God, which has been formed in the desert by prayer and penance and resisting temptation.
Do you want to be a firmly grounded person? Do you want to have a secure sense of who you are? Pray. Form a strong relationship with Jesus Christ and maintain it. Be constantly on the alert for Satan’s attempts to lead you astray, and resist them. “Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil,” Paul advises us today (1 Thess 5:21-22). Every day reaffirm your allegiance to God. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (5:18).
John attracted attention from the Jewish people, from the Jewish leaders, and from King Herod because of his message. His message pointed to “the light,” St. John tells us: “he came to testify to the light, so that all might believe thru him.”
When we were baptized, we were given a candle. That candle had been lit from the Easter candle, sign of Christ’s resurrection, sign of Christ’s eternal life, sign that Christ is the light of the world. We were admonished to keep that light burning brightly. In other words, we too were charged to testify to the light, the light that is Christ. Like John the Baptist, that’s what Christians do.
Jesus himself tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Your light must shine before humanity, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:14,16). We aren’t the light in our own right, but we reflect the One who is the light of the world thru our good deeds, our Christ-like deeds and words, our Christian presence in the world.
In the words of our 1st reading, “The Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Is 61:1-2). The world is full of the darkness of poverty and inequality, of broken hearts, of oppression, and even of slavery. Pope Francis’s message for World Day of Peace this year focuses on slavery in the many forms in which is persists in the 21st century. John the Baptist came to testify to the light that is Christ, and in the 21st century, we who follow Christ also must testify to him by bringing his light to the people around us and, insofar as we can, to our society, our culture, which is so badly in need of light, joy, peace, truth, faithfulness, and mercy.