John the Baptist Baptizes Jesus, Saint John The Baptist Coptic Orthodox Church, Vaudreuil-Dorion, Québec, Canada.
[Jesus said] “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk….” Matthew 11:4-5
As with the readings last week, the figure of John the Baptist dominates today’s Scripture passages. But today’s nickname, if you like, is “Gaudete Sunday” rendered as “Rejoice Sunday”. It means that a moment of optimism and joy breaks out into the world of purple anticipation that is the season of Advent. Today the liturgical color is the brighter rose (hence the rose candle in the Advent wreath). John had asked whether Jesus is The One, heralded for centuries by the prophets. Jesus recites his works of mercy, which we would call miracles, which John would instantly recognize as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. These are listed in today’s first reading. That must have produced joy in John’s heart. Jesus then magnifies John’s ministry as a further example of prophetic fulfillment, again from Isaiah but also from Malachi. So those who heard him would also be filled with joy. The second reading, from the letter of James, is also encouraging, that we should not lose patience, that we should “make our hearts firm”.
John the Baptist is a very interesting character in Scripture. Note that Jesus says today, “….there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This seems contradictory, and there have been many attempts at explaining it. The only one that seems plausible to me is the traditional understanding as John being the last prophet of the Old Testament. He clearly echoes Isaiah and Malachi, yet he actually initiates the Messiah’s calling at Jesus’ baptism. At that moment Jesus received his identity (the Son of God) and his vocation (on being anointed by the Holy Spirit, he becomes the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ). At that moment John’s life’s work is complete. He dies before Christ’s mission is complete, hence cannot be called a witness to the entire New Testament, therefore “least in the kingdom of heaven”. Nevertheless he is a towering figure in Scripture, consequently “none greater than he”.
The impact John had in his time was immense. There is even a group of believers in him called the Mandaeans. For them, Jesus is not the Messiah, but John is their chief and last prophet. Among other things, they must marry within their own circle, and never admit converts. Because of a great deal of persecution in their native Iraq, many have been dispersed throughout the world, with their total number declining, currently about 70,000 worldwide. They date right back to at least the time of John.
So is there a message for us after this complicated, even agonized, explication? I said last week that each of us should be aware of John’s attitude and self-awareness. He considered his mission to wait for the arrival of the Messiah, recognize him, and then allow him to take center stage, and for him, John, to step back. So today I say the same thing; we should be prepared to accept others into our lives, accept their strengths, allow them to grow, even with our encouragement, so that they are free, confident and growth-filled. In that way, I think Christ and John should coalesce within us as we accept others as God’s children, allowing their strengths and talents to grow and blossom, as we too fulfill our own vocation, to be Christ to the world. In that way we have two great models to emulate, and hence be all the stronger. That seems to be a good Advent lesson!
Preaching of John the Baptist, Ghirlandaio 1488, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence Italy.
Reflections on the following Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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