Sunday, December 17, 2017
John the Baptist points to Jesus as the Messiah
Humility is knowing one’s place within one’s proper identity
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to guide the reading:
The liturgy of the third Sunday in Advent presents to us the figure of John the Baptist and describes the place he occupies in God’s plan. Thus, it helps us to find our place and prepares us for Christmas. John the Baptist was a great man, a very great man. He was a prophet who had many disciples and was a popular protagonist. Jesus described him as the greatest among those born of woman. Nevertheless, according to Jesus, the least in the Realm is greater that John the Baptist (Mt 11:11). John knew this. He was praised by others, but did not praise himself. When Jesus began to proclaim the Realm of God, John gave way to him. His disciples, however, did not have this spirit of generosity. They were envious. John helped them to overcome this problem. In fact, it is not easy to cede one’s place and leadership to others and to collaborate with them in realising their mission.
b) A division of the text to assist a careful reading:
John 1:6-8: John’s place in God’s plan: to give witness to the light.
John 1:19-21: John’s negative witness concerning himself: he is not the one people think he is.
John 1:22-24: John’s positive witness regarding himself: he prepares the way for the Lord.
John 1:25-28: The meaning of John’s baptism: he prepares for one greater than he who is coming after him.
c) The text:
6-8: A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He was not the light, he was to bear witness to the light.
19-21: This was the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?' He declared, he did not deny but declared, 'I am not the Christ.' So they asked, 'Then are you Elijah?' He replied, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' He answered, 'No.'
22-24: So they said to him, 'Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?' So he said, 'I am, as Isaiah prophesied: A voice of one that cries in the desert: Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight!'
25-28: Now those who had been sent were Pharisees, and they put this question to him, 'Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the Prophet?' John answered them, 'I baptise with water; but standing among you -- unknown to you -- is the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandal.' This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What aspect of John the Baptist’s attitude most drew my attention and pleased me?
b) Three times John defines himself negatively: I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not the Prophet. What do these three denials tell us about the person of John?
c) Using a phrase from the Old Testament, John draws attention away from him and towards Jesus. What does this tell us about John and about Jesus?
d) What does John say about baptism? What is the difference between John’s baptism and that of Jesus?
e) Why did Jesus say that John is the greatest and yet the least in the Realm is greater than he?
f) How can all this help us prepare for Christmas?
5. A key to the reading
for those who wish go deeper into the text.
· The context of John the Baptist’s appearance in the Gospel of John
* The Gospel of John was written towards the end of the first century. In those days, wherever there were communities of Jews in Palestine and in Asia Minor, there were those also who had come in contact with John the Baptist or who had been baptised by him (Acts 19:3). Outwardly, John’s movement was very similar to that of Jesus. Both proclaimed the coming of the Realm (Mt 3:1-2) and both demanded conversion (Mt 4:17). There must have been some rivalry among the followers of John and those of Jesus. Thus John’s answer concerning Jesus was not just for those sent by the priests and Pharisees in John’s time, but also for the Christian communities of the end of the first century. In fact, the four Gospels are careful to quote John the Baptist’s words when he says that he is not the Messiah (Mt 3:3,11; Mk 1:2,7; Lk 3:4,16; Jn 1:10-23,30); 3:28-30).
· Comments on John’s witness
* John 1:6-8: John’s place in God’s plan: to give witness to the light.
The prologue of the fourth Gospel says that the living Word of God is present in all things and shines like the light in darkness for each person. Darkness tries to snuff the light, but fails to do so (Jn 1:15). No one can hide it, because we cannot live without God for long. The search for God is born again and again in the heart of humankind. John the Baptist came to help people to discover this luminous presence of the Word of God in life. His witness was so important, that many people thought that he was the Christ (Messiah)! (Acts 19:3; Jn 1:20). Thus the Prologue explains: “John was not the light! He came to bear witness to the light! ”
* John 1:19-21: John’s negative witness concerning himself: he is not the one others think he is.
The Jews sent priests and Pharisees to learn who was this John who baptised people in the desert and who drew so many people from everywhere. So they sent emissaries to ask: “Who is he?” John’s reply is strange. Instead of saying who he is, he says who he is not: “I am not the Messiah!” He then adds two other negative replies: he is not Elijah nor is he the Prophet. These are different aspects of the same messianic hope. In messianic times, Elijah would have returned to lead the hearts of fathers back to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. In other words, he would have returned to restore human solidarity (Mt 3:23-24; Si 48:10). The Prophet who was proclaimed would bring, in times to come, the work started by Moses to a satisfactory conclusion, he was seen by the people as the awaited Messiah (Dt 18:15). John rejects these messianic titles because he was not the Messiah.
Later, however, it is Jesus himself who says that John the Baptist was Elijah (Mt 17:12-13). How can we explain this statement? The fact is that there were various interpretations concerning the mission of Elijah. Some said that the Messiah would be like a new Elijah. In this sense, John was not Elijah. Others said that the mission of Elijah was that of preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. In this sense, John was Elijah.
In this dialogue between John and the Pharisees and priests, we see the catechesis of the communities of the end of the first century. The questions put by the priests and Pharisees on the meaning of John the Baptist in God’s plan are the questions of the communities. Thus, Jesus’ replies as written by the Evangelist, are also addressed to the communities.
* John 1:22-24: John’s positive witness: he is only one who prepares the way.
“ Why do you baptise if you are not the Christ nor Elijah nor the Prophet?” Those sent by the priests and Pharisees wanted a clear answer, because they had to render an account to those who had sent them to interrogate John. It was not sufficient for them to know what John was not. They wanted to know who he was and what he meant in God’s plan. John’s reply is a phrase taken from the prophet Isaiah, a common phrase, which is quoted in the four Gospels: “I am a voice crying in the desert. Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23). In this use of the Old Testament we see the mysticism that animated the reading of the Sacred Scripture by the first Christians. They sought in the words, not just arguments to prove some statements, but much more to verbalise and explain for themselves and for others the newness of their experience of God in Jesus (cf 2 Tim 3:15-17).
* John 1:25-28: The meaning of John’s baptism and person.
In the Christian communities of the end of the first century, there were those who knew only John’s baptism (Acts 18:25; 19:3). When they met other Christians who had received the baptism of Jesus, they wanted to know what John’s baptism meant. In those days there were many kinds of baptisms. Baptism was a form whereby a person committed him/herself to a particular message. Those who accepted the message were invited to confirm their decision by means of a baptism (ablution, purification or bath). For instance, through the baptism of John a person would bind him/herself to the message proclaimed by John. Through the baptism of Jesus, one bound oneself to the message of Jesus that gave him/her the gift of the Spirit (Acts 10:44-48; 19:5-6).
There is among you one whom you do not know. This statement of John refers to Jesus, present among the multitude. When John was writing his Gospel, Jesus continued to be present in the communities and in persons, above all in the poor with whom he identified himself. Today he is in our midst in many ways and today too, very often, we do not recognise him.
· Further comments on John the Baptist in the Gospel of John
* John the Baptist in John’s Gospel
John gave rise to a very large popular movement. Jesus himself adhered to the movement of the Baptist and had himself baptised in the Jordan. Even after his death, John continued to exercise great attraction and influence among the Jews and among the Christians who came from Judaism (Acts 19:1-7). The information concerning John the Baptist preserved in the fourth Gospel (Jn 1:6-8. 15, 19-36; Jn 3: 22-30), is as follows:
1) John came to give witness to the light (Jn 1:6-8),
2) Jesus came after John and was John’s disciple. Nevertheless, he is more important than John, because he was before John: “He who comes after me ranks before me because he existed before me” (Jn 1:15,30). Jesus is the creative Word standing by the Father even from the beginning of creation (Jn 1:1-3).
3) John confessed openly: “I am not the Christ. I am not Elijah. I am not the Prophet awaited by the people. I am only a voice crying in the desert: straighten the path of the Lord” (Jn 1:19-23).
4) Before Jesus, John considers himself unworthy to undo the straps of his sandals and says: “He must increase and I must decrease” (Jn 1:27; 3:30).
5) John declared to the people concerning Jesus: “I saw the Spirit coming down on him from heaven like a dove and resting on him. He is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1:32-33).
6) John points to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29,36), God’s chosen one (Jn 1:34).
* A Gallery of Jesus’ meeting with people in John’s Gospel
In his Gospel, John relates in detail various meetings that Jesus had with people throughout his itinerant life in Palestine: with the first disciples (Jn 1:35-51, with Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-13; 4:14; 7:50-52; 19:39), with John the Baptist (Jn 3:22-36), with the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-42), with the woman about to be stoned (Jn 8:1-11), with Martha and Mary (Jn 11:17-37). These and other meetings are described as if they were tableaux hung on the walls of an Art Gallery. To attentive eyes and to those able to appreciate things beyond the details, they reveal the identity of Jesus. At the same time they reveal the characteristics of the communities that believed in Jesus and that witnessed to his presence. They are also mirrors that help us to discover what goes on within ourselves when we meet Jesus. The mirror of the meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist, which we are reflecting on during this third Sunday in Advent, helps us prepare for the meeting with Jesus in the coming feast of Christmas.
6. Psalm 131
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great
and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother's breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this
time forth and for evermore.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.