by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Jerusalem rejoices because of what the Lord has done…God has clothed her with salvation and victory.” Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11
’“When the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask him (John): ‘Who are you?’, he not only declared, but declared quite openly: ‘I am not the Christ’. ‘Well then,’ they asked, ‘are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not’ he said. ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered: ‘No’. So, they said to him: ‘Who are you?’ John 1: 6-8, 19-28
One of the characteristics of John’s Gospel, from which today’s gospel-reading comes, is its dense prose. The author did not waste words and the ones he used were all carefully chosen. He did not know the meaning of padding. The consequence of that is that readers have to engage with the text closely and carefully. An illustration of what I’m trying to say is to be seen in the comparison the writer makes between John the Baptist and his interrogators. The Gospel writer presented John the Baptist to his readers as ”A man sent by God.” (John 1: 6) A little later, the Baptist’s interrogators are introduced as being “sent from Jerusalem by the Jews”. (John 1: 19) The Evangelist, simply by noting that it was God who had missioned the Baptist and the Jews who had missioned priests and Levites to question him, challenges us to stop and ask ourselves on whose behalf do we act as we live out our mission in life?
This is a neat segue into the evangelist’s description of the puzzling exchange that took place between the Baptist and those who had been instructed to sound him out. Let’s start by looking again at the dialogue that ensued:
“Who are you?” asked the priests and Levites.
“I am not the Christ” declared the Baptist.
“Well, then, are you Elijah?” they asked.
“I am not.” said the Baptist.
“Are you the Prophet? (Moses)”
“No” replied the Baptist.
“Then who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us.”
I suspect that, by then, the investigators from Jerusalem must have been wondering if they were dealing with a man who had only a tenuous grip on reality. There have probably been times in our life when, after getting angry or verbally insulting someone, we have stopped and asked ourselves who we really are. But when someone comes by and asks us our name or where we live or what we do for a living, we don’t respond with a statement of who we aren’t. When the Baptist’s questioners changed tack and chose to offer some possible names that might resonate in the mind of one they had concluded was delusional, they drew a blank first up, and then another blank before they were given a response that echoed something in Isaiah with which they were familiar.
Just for a moment, let’s imagine the scene. Here was the Baptist, after launching into what he saw as his mission, being stopped in his tracks by underlings claiming to represent religious leaders back at head-quarters. When they persisted in their badgering him, he seemed to take an attitude something like: “Well, I’ll give these little upstarts something to put in their pipes and smoke!” But the interrogators changed direction yet again, and instead of letting themselves get drawn into a public debate, they picked up the game the Baptist had started and asked: “Well, if you’re not the Messiah or Elijah or Moses, what do think you’ll gain by firing people up like this?” The Baptist resisted giving them any satisfaction by stating that, if they thought he was causing a disturbance, they had better brace themselves for the arrival of someone who would make him look like a nobody.
Fully aware of who it was who succeeded the Baptist, we can only conclude that John the Baptist was a man who had come to realise that God’s Spirit was alive and active in the depths of his being and was prodding him to step up and proclaim the advent of the Christ of God who would change the course of history irrevocably. In faith, we believe that God’s Spirit in alive in us prodding us to be agents of hope and peace and justice and freedom for others. We recognise people who live and act as agents of God’s Spirit simply because they refuse to big-note themselves and, instead, inspire confidence in others, empowering them to recognise God’s Spirit active in them too.
In today’s second reading from Thessalonians, we hear how Paul reminded that community (and us, too) how the promptings of God’s Spirit at work in them had led them to appreciate how God’s goodness had touched them (and us). The authentic indicator of that was the joy that permeated them and expressed itself in the way in which they related to one another. Joy is not a virtue to be cultivated. Like hospitality It is an attitude to life and to those we meet. It is something that wells up from the depths of those who have come to know in their hearts that they are, indeed, dearly loved by God.
The opening chapter of John’s Gospel begins with a hymn to the Word of God: “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1: 1) This first chapter goes on to highlight how John the Baptist was sent by God as the one who would link the Word who breathed the world into being with Jesus, the Word of God who would identify with humankind by being born in human flesh (Jesus, the Word incarnate). Of interest is the fact that the Greek word that John the Evangelist used to refer to the Baptist’s being sent by God to testify to the imminent arrival of the Messiah is the same Greek word from which we get the word apostle. In the mind of the evangelist, the Baptist was the first apostle of Jesus, the one who testified to Jesus’ coming into the world as brother to us all.
This brings us full circle. “Who are you?” is the question the priests and Levites put to the Baptist. The irony about what that question triggered is that the only one in the story who really knew who he was turned out to be the Baptist, who was portrayed as a nut case, living on the edge. Today’s gospel-reading, supported by the earlier readings from Isaiah and Thessalonians, confront us with the very same question: “Who are you?” Will we answer it with a name, an occupation or a descriptor that identifies us as one who has accepted a commission from God? We’ll discover the right answer only in the depths of our being, but that will call for reflection.