Sunday reflection: John 1:6-8, 19-28

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 1:6–8, 19–28:

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.

And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Christ.” So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”

Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Today we get John the Evangelist’s version of events surrounding John the Baptist and his ministry in the desert, which we heard last week from Mark. This reading affirms our Advent as a time for preparation, for ministry in the name of the Lord, and of “making straight” the paths that lead to Him.

As I noted last week, John the Baptist and his ministry clearly had an impact on the region, as this delegation shows. It’s a long way to travel from Jerusalem to the Jordan, and yet enough were making the journey for the priests of the temple to take notice. The fact that they sent out a delegation for the days-long journey to meet John, and that it included both Levites and priests who normally would have duties at the temple, demonstrates just what kind of impact John was having on the people of God in the region.

They traveled out a very long way, expecting by their questions to see either Elijah restored or the Messiah — or a false prophet that may need condemning in order to ensure that they could keep Israelites from falling into error. If so, John’s answers must have disappointed them in both regards. John’s humility confounds all of their interrogations. He doesn’t claim to be a prophet in the sense of speaking for God, but only to be someone who serves in preparation. Elijah hadn’t returned, John insists that he’s a nobody, and that he’s just helping people prepare for the coming of the Messiah by preaching repentance and performing baptisms.

John also tells them something else, when the Pharisees challenge him for baptizing people and proclaiming their sins forgiven, that they seem to miss. The Pharisees would object to John’s ministry as something near blasphemy. Only God could forgive sins, and that action was connected with temple sacrifice and blood, not water in the Jordan. If John isn’t the Christ or Elijah, then by what authority can he claim to wash sins away, as it seemed John was doing? John emphasizes that he’s not presuming to replace the authority of the temple, or for that matter anyone else, by reminding them that he’s baptizing with water and not using blood. This must have confounded the Pharisees, because rather than bind John and bring him back to be judged, they leave him to his ministry. Herod Antipas later has John arrested and killed, but not because of blasphemy or any crime, real or imagined.

This large delegation of Pharisees, Levites, and priests focuses so much on trying to pin John down on his ministry that they appear to miss his real message — the Christ is already among them. “There is one among you whom you do not recognize,” John tells them, “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” The Gospels make no mention of a reaction to this point, and perhaps the delegation was inclined to shrug it off after finding John disappointing on several levels.

But that’s still curious, considering the context in which this takes place. The Israelites had chafed under Roman domination for generations. They thirsted for divine intervention to allow them their freedom. The Messiah was their promised deliverance, and John’s ministry had attracted enough attention to move the priests and Levites to check to see whether John the Baptist was their savior. John humbles himself but tells them that the Messiah has already arrived, even though Jesus at this point has not begun his public ministry. One would think that this would have been such good news that the temple establishment would have started looking amongst the population for the Christ, or at least prepared themselves for his emergence.

And yet … the Gospels give no indication that any such activity occurred. Instead, the delegation leaves John and goes back to business as usual. They missed the opportunity to prepare to receive the Christ.

Do we do the same thing? After all, Advent is a time of preparation for us each year, in which we are called to hearken to John’s call for preparation and repentance in order to make straight our own path to the Lord. Advent preparation isn’t just in memory of the ministry of Jesus 2,000 years ago — it is an annual reminder to us that we must prepare our whole lives for the Second Coming of Christ. That calls us to action in repenting of sin and forming our hearts so that we can receive Christ, and recognize Him when He comes. It also calls us to recognize Him in the least among us, as Christ Himself commanded, and form ourselves in caritas so that we may lift others in an expression of love rather than obligation.

This Advent, perhaps we should ponder whether we’re really preparing ourselves for that, or just content to keep up with business as usual. Are we merely traveling the Advent path for a season to check in on what happened, only to shrug and go back to our lives without recognizing the Messiah among us? That’s a long trip for nothing — and today’s Gospel reminds us of that.

The front-page image is “St. John the Baptist,” an oil painting by Francesco Solimena of the Baroque period. Original is displayed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid (via WikiArt).