December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent, Year B
The Gospel that we hear today is composed of two distinct parts: the first three verses are taken from the solemn Prologue of St. John (Jn1:6-8), and then the Gospel continues with the narrative section, which comes immediately after the Prologue (Jn 1:19-28).
In the first part, it is the evangelist who presents the figure of John the Baptist; in the second he himself appears, bombarded by the questions of the emissaries sent from Jerusalem (1:19) to know who was this man that was re-awakening the expectation of Israel, who had reopened the desert road.
The evangelist says four basic things about the Baptist: the name – “John” –, the origin – “sent by God” –, the mission – “to be a testimony of the light” –, and the purpose of the mission – “so that all may believe through him.”
An emphasis is given to the mission: the term witness/testimony in two verses (Jn 1:7-8) is repeated three times.
The Baptist is the first witness of Jesus, in a Gospel where the concept of testimony is fundamental. You only have to see how many times this term occurs (more than forty), to realize how important is the figure of the witness.
We could think of John’s Gospel as a long walk, during which, little by little, the identity of Jesus is better known, and during the course of this walk we can hear some witnesses (Cana, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind and many others).
The basic witnesses are two: the first is precisely the Baptist, and the second is the beloved disciple.
And both do the same thing: they testify to the relationship of Jesus with the Father, His coming from God to return to Him.
And they do it for a unique reason: as for the Baptist, also for the beloved disciple’s testimony, it is written, has just one purpose, the faith of disciples. In Chapter 19, after Jesus’ death, when the soldiers struck his side and from it comes blood and water, the evangelist could say: “One who has seen it testifies and his testimony is true; he knows what he says is true, so that you also may believe” (Jn 19:35).
The aim of the testimony is faith, so that whoever, believing, has life and salvation.
Who is therefore the witness? In legal practice as well, the witness is the one who has seen firsthand. Not just one who has heard talk, but one who was present, who knows things by having seen them.
In fact, a little further on with respect to the verses read today, the Baptist will tell of having seen with his own eyes “I contemplated the Spirit descending from heaven as a dove and remaining on him. I myself did not know him but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me: The man on whom you will see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize in the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” (Jn 1:32-34).
At this point, however, we can say that the witness is not only one who has seen, but also one who first believed: he heard the Word of the Father who sent him, and he recognized that the event was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. And he believed in Him. As the Baptist’s life is a testimony, let us see him in the second part of today’s Gospel, where he himself is introduced.
First of all, John is introduced denying what others were expecting he was: he says he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet (Jn 1:20-21). The other evangelists instead identify him with the prophet Elijah, or in any case with the prophet that would come immediately before the Messiah pointing out his imminent arrival, referring to the belief of the time, based on the Old Testament (Mal 3:23).
It is normal then that the emissaries are urging: “Tell us who you are” (Jn 1:22). But even this time the Baptist is not very precise and thorough. In speaking of himself, John simply responds with an Old Testament citation: “I am a voice of one who cries out in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said” (Jn 1:23). The Baptist gives us two recommendations.
First of all, it seems that for the Baptist it is not important to fix eyes on him. What is important, for the Baptist, is that “among you there is one whom you do not know” (Jn 1:26).
There is someone to know, it’s true, but it is not the Baptist: he serves only to point out who is the One that should be known. John is clear that only by not attracting attention to himself, can he turn it to the One Who is truly awaited; and only by disappearing will he fulfill his own mission and testify to the presence of the Messiah among men. Further on, he will state it explicitly: “He must increase; I, instead, must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
The second relates to the citation of Isaiah. Perhaps it is not important to pause on the fact that the Baptist is identified with a voice, as if to say of himself he does not find other words than those already spoken by God through a prophet: once again, attention is not fixed on himself, as if the Baptist was aware of not having anything new or different to say, except the Word, announced for a long time, which now is being fulfilled.
And what is this Word? Among the many which John could have chosen to identify, he finds one at the beginning of Isaiah chapter 40. It will not be a coincidence that the great Book of Consolation begins with this chapter, which announces the end of slavery and the start of a new time.
Actually, says John the Baptist, I am only the witness that this time has begun, and the only thing to do is to recognize the One who is already among you, therefore there is no more time to lose, the waiting is over.
Today, the Baptist asks us forcefully to return to the essential, to the “beginning” of which Mark spoke last Sunday (Mk 1:1): to forget everything else, to fix attentions on the presence of the Lord already working in the Church and in the world. It is a strong appeal, which the Baptist makes, who seems to know our inclination to dwell on our particulars and to lose the fundamental. Advent, then, is the time, for each one, to rediscover the essential of life and faith.