by Br Julian McDonald cfc
There was a man named John sent by God, who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that through him all might believe. – but only to testify to the light, for he himself was not the light. John 1, 6-8, 19-28
Even in the time of Jesus, anyone who lived on a diet of wild honey and locusts, and dressed in a garment of camel hair tied up with a leather belt, would have been regarded as odd. Today’s gospel reading from John describes what happened when a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem were deputised to confront John the Baptist. While the interrogators’ opening question “Who are you?” looks innocent enough, there is a certain edge and hostility to the succession of questions that come tumbling out of their mouths. Effectively, the Baptist is being threatened with something like: “Who do you think you are, stirring up the local people? Explain yourself, and it had better be convincing!”
In the mind of the Gospel-writer, John the Baptist was a man who clearly knew who he was and what his mission in life was. He was not full of his own self-importance, and certainly had no delusions of grandeur. So, he allayed any fears they might have had by immediately telling his visitors who he wasn’t: *Don’t for one moment start imagining that I think I’m the Messiah or Elijah or some other prophet. However, I am calling people to a change of heart, as preparation to welcome one among us whose presence and importance has not yet been recognised.”
Like so many people who look different, and who don’t meet the expectations of those around them, the Baptist was a source of anxiety and discomfort for those who were easily threatened.
In recounting this episode in the Baptist’s life, the Gospel writer very skilfully compared John the Baptist with those who had come to question him. The Evangelist introduces the Baptist with: “There was a man named John sent by God, who came as a witness to testify to the light…” (John 1, 6). In contrast, John the Baptist’s interrogators were sent by the Jews and Pharisees (John 1, 19; John 1, 24).
If we are open to participating in this gospel-reading, we are challenged with a succession of questions:
John the Baptist was secure in knowing who he was. Am I as secure in knowing who I am and what my mission in life is?
John the Baptist was sent by God. Am I, too, someone who has been sent by God into my world? And for what purpose?
The Baptist’s interrogators were sent by the Jews and a group of Pharisees – leaders who were either not courageous enough to confront the Baptist themselves or who had already dismissed him as a religious lunatic. Do I allow myself to be drawn into asking difficult questions on behalf of others who lack the courage or the ability to engage in healthy confrontation? Am I quick to dismiss people who don’t conform with my expectations of what is appropriate dress, speech and conduct?
I am not entirely comfortable wrestling with questions like these. In fact, I suggest that they are questions the answers to which change as the circumstances of our lives change. While I am the same person now as I was at the age of twenty-five, I am more confident, now I’m in my seventies, in knowing who I am. Moreover, I have a clearer sense of my mission as a disciple of Jesus. However, wrestling with questions such as these calls for some measure of discernment and a willingness to be open to the promptings of God’s Spirit, who continues to be at work in our world and in our lives. In recent times, Pope Francis has repeatedly called us to be conscious to the signs of our times, to be alert to the promptings of God’s Spirit in our lives.
“Who are you?” is a question that people have asked one another throughout history, It is a question that we human beings sometimes ask of God. Boaz put that very question to Ruth when he woke in the middle of the night and found her sleeping at his feet (Ruth 3, 9). In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how Saul, after being struck to the ground on his way to Damascus, heard a voice of challenge: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In response, Saul called out: “Who are you, sir?” The voice answered: “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting…(Acts 9, 3-5). All literature is a window onto life, viewed from the perspective of those who have written it. The Bible is an anthology of many different kinds of literature, written across a span of centuries. Jews and Christians believe the Bible is divinely inspired. Scholars, of course, are able to distinguish the differing styles of the various authors. In the New Testament we know that there are differing accounts of the same event in the life of Jesus, and there are even little contradictions. They simply reflect how we human beings tell stories, adding our own variations and embellishments.
Back in the 1970s, when I was studying in the USA, I attended a performance of a play written by the American dramatist, William Inge. It was called Picnic, and explores the lives of a group of neighbours from a small working-class town in Kansas. It is a melodrama which features a would-be beauty queen who has grown tired of just being “pretty”. She has a younger and more intelligent sister, who is struggling to come out from under her sister’s shadow. Then there’s a handsome stranger who has appeared from nowhere. He has an air of bravado and adventure, and is really looking for a new start in life. There’s also a single school-teacher, who is intent on convincing a local businessman to marry her, so she can escape from a life that seems to her to be going nowhere. All of these characters are constantly measuring themselves against what they think are the expectations of their neighbours and their inward-looking community and the expectations they have built for themselves. In the process of looking at the lives of these characters, Inge explores themes that touch the lives of all of us in one way or another. – life’s disappointments, repression, depression, sexuality and rites of passage.
“Who are you?” and “Who am I?” are questions we all ask and explore at some time, or, rather, times, in our lives. In today’s gospel-reading, we meet a man who, simply and deeply knows the answer to these questions. First, he knows who he isn’t. He knows, without doubt, that he isn’t the Messiah. Elijah or the Prophet. But, he is the one who will attest to the light, to Jesus, whose message will bring light to the world, – and nothing is going to distract him from that. We are reminded today that we, too, are meant to testify to the light by the way we live. By acting with compassion and justice and integrity and mercy and forgiveness, we bring hope and encouragement to our world which, as a result of Covid, is gripped by fear and uncertainty, doubt and distrust. We are not the Messiah, we are not Jesus, but by imitating the Baptist, by living what Jesus taught, we can bring light and hope to our sisters and brothers.