by Br Julian McDonald cfc
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, 29-34
When we read today’s gospel alongside Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus (last Sunday’s gospel reading, Matthew 3, 13-17) we might catch ourselves thinking that John is giving us another version of the story of Jesus’ baptism. Notice, however, that John makes no mention of baptism. Instead, for the benefit of his audience, he testifies publicly to who Jesus is. He identifies Jesus as “the Chosen One of God”, the Messiah for whom the Jewish nation has been waiting in expectation. The remainder of John’s Gospel is an accumulation of evidence to support his assertion that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God. John’s Gospel is essentially a theological treatise about the person and mission of Jesus Christ, whom he had come to know as an intimate friend and whose mission he saw first-hand. All of us who have studied geometry in our school days would be familiar with how we used to conclude geometrical theorems with the formulaic tag Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum – which was to be proved). In similar fashion, John concluded his Gospel with a statement meant prove the Baptist’s assertion that Jesus is really the Chosen One of God: “These things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name” (John 20, 31. The epilogue, Ch. 21 is a later edition.)
The substance of John’s Gospel is sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue. In the prologue, which, in itself, is a tightly constructed theological statement, we learn that Jesus, the Word of God existed “in the beginning” and, at a moment in time, took on a human existence – “the Word became flesh”. In his Gospel, John states that Jesus existed before John the Baptist ever knew him. To reinforce his point, he has John the Baptist actually utter those words to the crowd: “This is the one I spoke of when I said: ‘A man is coming after me who ranks before me because he existed before me. I did not know who he would be, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptizing with water.’” (John 1, 30-31). In order to emphasise the fact that he saw the main mission of the Baptist as being to identify Jesus as the Messiah and to reveal that information to the nation of Israel, John the Evangelist does not include any other information that could distract from his principal message. So there is no mention of Jesus being baptized, nothing about the fact that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins, and nothing about Jesus being younger in age than his cousin. John the Evangelist is intent on teaching theology, rather than family history.
The other very significant aspect of this theology lesson is that the Baptist names Jesus as God’s Passover Lamb. From the very outset of his Gospel, John is alluding to the fact that Jesus’ ministry will come to completion when he is sacrificed on the Cross to free people from the oblivion of death. Before the Hebrew people were led by Moses from slavery in Egypt, they were directed by Moses to slaughter a lamb and sprinkle the blood on the doorposts of their houses as a sign to the angel of death to pass over their houses and to visit death only on Egyptian households. That is why John the Evangelist has John the Baptist identifying Jesus as God’s Passover Lamb, who will deliver new freedom to Israel.
As we look back over our own lives, we can probably all identify teachers whose enthusiasm for their subject was infectious or whose generosity in taking a personal interest in our progress built our self-confidence and boosted our sense of self-worth. In today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist invites his audience (and that includes us) to open our eyes to who Jesus really is. If we really encounter Jesus, our lives will be transformed. If we truly meet the Jesus of John’s Gospel, we will come to see ourselves, other people and our world with new eyes. If we can only engage with Jesus and embrace the message he proclaimed, we will discover our own capacity for compassion, forgiveness and selflessness.
In the view of John the Evangelist, John the Baptist was the last of the great prophets of Israel, and had somehow had a vision of God’s Spirit descending on Jesus and living within him. That led him to conclude that Jesus was, indeed, the long-awaited Messiah who had come to usher in a new way of living. That new way was spelled out by Jesus over the succeeding three years and has been recorded in the Gospels. In ancient Jewish tradition there were lots of stories about how the Messiah would come. One of those stories claimed that the Messiah, when he eventually arrived, would continue to be something of a hidden figure. This is echoed in the Baptist’s words: “I did not know who he would be” (John 1, 31). Yet, when John did encounter Jesus, he was inspired to describe him as “God’s Passover Lamb” – not a warm, cuddly creature, but a powerful figure, reminiscent of the first Passover lamb, who would rid the world of the effects of sin. So the Baptist presents a paradoxical picture of a Messiah who is so inconspicuous that he is not recognised immediately, even by the Baptist, and yet he is someone filled with God’s Spirit.
There are serious consequences if we are unable to resolve this apparent paradox. Let me illustrate with an example. When I first came to religious life, what was called “the hidden life” was strongly promoted. One of the distorted consequences of that was the exhortation to cultivate and maintain an unhealthy isolation from reality (sometimes labelled as “the world”). It led those directing novices and young religious to stifle their charges from expressing any kind of initiative or creativity. Even pursuing things like art and music were discouraged, and there was little scope for expressing personal opinions. Listening to radio news bulletins and reading newspapers were forbidden to anyone who had not made profession of perpetual vows. But similar restrictions were imposed on Catholics in the pews. They were urged to persevere in soul-destroying and life-sapping marriages. Countless people were exhorted (in the name of God) to stay within the boundaries of their own desperations, to endure domestic violence or to keep their emerging talents in check. As a result, the “hidden life” sometimes developed into a form of escapism – failing to speak out and demonstrate against blatant injustice, turning a blind eye to issues and people needing confrontation, even being kept ignorant of the skills of healthy confrontation, and all this on the premise that obscurity was somehow supposed to be in line with God’s will and purpose.
However, it’s just possible that today’s gospel reading also contains an invitation for us all to reflect on how we handle ourselves when our very worthwhile contributions to people in need are not recognised and acknowledged. Living the values of the Kingdom of God can be a thankless task. Jesus experienced that as his life unfolded, and all he had to console himself was his faith in God. Whenever God’s Spirit lands on us, and it really does from time to time, our consolation will be found in our faith in the God whom Jesus came to know and trust.