John sensed that the coming of God was near at hand and he began to proclaim it.
by Fr Eunan McDonnell SDB
Have you ever found yourself driving along country roads in the dead of winter, with freshly fallen snow and a freezing fog that has just descended? I found myself in such a situation a few years ago. I only relaxed my grip on the steering wheel whenever I could spot the red lights of a car in front of me. What a gift from God. However, more often than not, my guide would disappear and once more I would tense up as I negotiated the road ahead. Often, I would look into the rear-view mirror and smile to myself: behind me would be a line of traffic taking comfort from the fact that I was now leading them, but they didn’t know what I knew – I didn’t know where I was going!
Life is like that. In particular, the journey of faith is like that. In our lives, we will be sent by God to be a ‘light’ in the darkness that others can follow and, at other times, we will need someone to go ahead of us with their light, so we can follow them. This seems to me to be the essence of John the Baptist. He is ‘sent by God.’ He recognizes that he is not the light, but his mission is to prepare the way for the light, Christ the light.
How does John understand himself? When he is asked “who are you?” Unlike us, he doesn’t reply by telling his name, age, nationality or anything about his work. He replies immediately in terms of his mission. He understands himself as being sent by God. To the question: Who are you? He replies:
“I am a voice, calling out, prepare the way of the Lord…”
“I am not the light, but I am preparing you to receive the light…”
“I baptize with water, but there stands among you, one who is more powerful
than I am… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit….”
Back to driving in the snow and fog. How warm and welcoming were those red tail lights as they led me through the fog. Like Christmas decorations, they now remind me of all those people on my journey who have brought me a step closer to Christ, who have prepared the way for the Lord in my life. As I think of each of them, my heart is filled with gratitude. Their example, their kindness, their support, their guidance, and even their challenges. As we drive along this advent, or even more likely as we get stuck in traffic, may the tail lights of the car ahead of us remind us of them. Those persons sent by God into our lives who like John the Baptist, prepared the way of the Lord for us. May we give thanks to God for the gift they are. May we learn from them and pass on what we have received. May we also prepare the way of the Lord in the lives of others this Advent. Remember, you too are sent by God (Jn.1:6).
1st Reading – Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11
The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up hearts that are broken;
to proclaim liberty to captives,
freedom to those in prison;
to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.
‘I exult for joy in the Lord,
my soul rejoices in my God,
for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation,
he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity,
like a bridegroom wearing his wreath,
like a bride adorned in her jewels.
‘For as the earth makes fresh things grow,
as a garden makes seeds spring up,
so will the Lord make both integrity and praise
spring up in the sight of the nations.’
2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Be happy at all times; pray constantly; and for all things give thanks to God, because this is what God expects you to do in Christ Jesus.
Never try to suppress the Spirit or treat the gift of prophecy with contempt; think before you do anything – hold on to what is good and avoid every form of evil.
May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has called you and he will not fail you.
Gospel Reading – John 1:6-8,19-28
A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light,
only a witness to speak for the light.
This is how John appeared as a witness. When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he not only declared, but he 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? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?’ So John said, ‘I am, as Isaiah prophesied:
a voice that cries in the wilderness:
Make a straight way for the Lord.’
Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, ‘Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?’ John replied, ‘I baptise with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.
Scripture readings – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11
Moved by the Spirit, the prophet/Messiah invites people to rejoice by announcing glad tidings: help for the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, liberty for captives, and a year of divine blessing for all God’s people. The challenge for us is two-fold. First, to allow God’s Living Word to inform all our relationships and our behaviours in the world. Second, to truly grasp the importance of justice and peace in all our affairs and dealings. The prophet’s core message is about service in the name of God. Can you see Isaiah’s vision coming alive in the person and ministry of Jesus? Rejoice! Let his glad tidings echo deep in your heart wherever you are!
LORD, Adonai, we rejoice in you today. We celebrate your healing word: life for the poor and the broken-hearted. We clap our hands at your promise of freedom! We shout for joy at your year of favour! Thank you, LORD! LORD, set the whole cosmos ablaze with songs of joy as we declare your praise among the nations! May the whole earth be glad! May we sing and bless your name forever! Amen.
Responsorial Psalm: Luke 1:46-50,53-54
Taken from Mary’s Magnificat, today’s responsory is full of joy, rejoicing and promise. The Promised One is coming! New life is blazing in his hands! Rejoice and be glad! The Magnificat celebrates God’s liberating power in the world. It echoes with memories of the great things God has done across the whole arc of time. The Magnificat has much to teach us today: joyful praise of God, how to remember God’s mighty deeds, how to acclaim God as a wonderful healer and liberator. And then there is the context: Mary’s act of loving kindness towards her cousin Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s prophetic words. There is much to reflect on here for all of us.
LORD, Adonai, we rejoice with Mary and Elizabeth. We raise our songs of praise to your glory. We acclaim you! Mighty are you and glorious, worthy of all praise! We thank you for your wonderful deeds! We thank you for the gift of Jesus! We thank you for the gift of the Spirit! Give us the courage to reach out to those in need at this holy time. Give us the courage to work for justice. Through us, fill the hungry with good things. Warm and wrap all living beings in your streams of loving mercy. Work marvels in our day! Amen.
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
The theme of rejoicing (that is what Gaudete means) is continued in the second reading. Rejoice always! That is Paul’s message. But he also wants to remind us of Christ’s second coming in glory. That is why this passage is full of wise spiritual teachings: about praying, about the Spirit, about prophecy and discernment, about an ethical life and wholeness, and about being ready for Christ in body, soul and spirit. We stand between the first and second coming of Jesus. In these days we celebrate the first while we await the second. Our task today is to understand that the bridge between the two is joy. So rejoice!
Lord Jesus, standing in the time-space between your first and second coming we lift up songs of delight and rejoicing! Hear our prayer! Come, Lord Jesus! Pour out your Spirit on people everywhere! Be with us in these difficult times! Through us, be with the poor and the lonely! Be with the homeless! Be with the lost and trafficked! Bathe our homes in your blessings! Bless us with your peace and light! Give us the courage to stand for what is right and just. Teach us to be discerning in our ways and in our choices! Most of all, touch us with your holiness so that with body, mind and spirit renewed we may bless you when you come! Amen.
Gospel: John 1:6-8,19-28
The gospel introduces us to John the Baptist. His God-given task was to witness to the light of Christ. John knew himself well. Quoting the prophet Isaiah he identified himself as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make the way of the Lord straight’ (Isaiah 40:3). He also said to his questioners, “I baptise 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.” What is our task? To try and make the Lord’s way straight at least as far as our own lives are concerned. Rejoice! The grace to do that is already waiting for us! We too are called to be Christ’s voice, his witnesses in the world. We too are called to proclaim him light to the world, the One who shows us God. Remember: ours is meant to be a purpose-driven life.
Lord Jesus, you are the light of the world! Like John, we are not worthy to tie your sandal straps. Fill us with your glorious light! Make us a transformed people, a people fit for you when you come! Bless us with a new spirit, a brave spirit ready to face the world like John the Baptist! Make us witnesses to the light like him, like your mother Mary, like Elizabeth, like Mary of Magdala, like so many other people down the centuries! Help us to recognise you in the breaking of the bread! Amen.
Today the Gospel puts before us the figure of John the Baptist: John sensed that the coming of God was near at hand and he began to proclaim it. His lifestyle and his personal convictions meant that he was not very popular with his fellow citizens. He did not mind what they thought about him. He was interested only in his personal mission and the God who was about to come. He knew that God’s coming was imminent and he devoted himself entirely, mind and body, to preparing for it. The witness of his life should encourage us today. We know that God has come into our world. We should not be too concerned about the fact that we still know very little about Christ or that we do not know precisely where to find him. Maybe we should have the courage to admit that we cannot compare ourselves to Christ, and that what others see in us is not what they will see in Christ when he comes. Then we will realize that the God we proclaim and the God we serve is far greater than we can proclaim and greater than we can ever imagine. That is how it was with John the Baptist. He was not the fullness of the light but only the dawn that heralded the coming of the light. He was not the messiah but merely his voice. He was not the one who was to come, and he was not worthy to be his servant, but he was good enough to live in expectation of his coming and to keep hope alive in others.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
John’s testimony is the first of a series in which the evangelist presents the person of Jesus, a series which will conclude with Jesus’ own self-revelation. The Baptist feels obliged to explain his actions and his mission: everything he does is to prepare for the one who is coming after him. With a triple denial he corrects the false expectations of the Jews. He is not the one they are hoping for, but only his spokesperson. He proclaimed the one who was to come, not the one his listeners were expecting or wanted to hear about. It took a lot of courage to go against the hopes of the people who had come to hear him, but John had to be faithful to his personal mission and to his God. For that reason John proclaimed by his way of life the message that he spoke in words. It was something his listeners did not expect: the promised one was already in their midst. Of what use is waiting if it does not prepare us to recognise the one we have been waiting for? The warning given in John the Baptist’s testimony is still valid: we could lose the God we have longed for and desired, for such a long time, simply because we do not recognise him in our midst.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
Herein lies the mystery of Christmas and the reason for our joy: if we remember that God has become human, then as long as we live as humans among other human beings, we will never feel far away from God. If we believe in Christmas, we will recognise God’s footsteps in everyday events, sad or joyful, great or small. God is interested in people and in the world. He became one of us and dwelt in our world. When this statement of our Christian faith becomes for us a personal conviction and a daily experience, it will also be a source of profound joy, capable of overcoming any temptation and putting up with any situation.
The most frequent temptation – the most subtle and also the most difficult to overcome – is that of thinking that God has little to do with our world, that he has lost interest in us. The truth is that we live in a world so inhospitable and unjust that we easily lose hope. We find it hard to believe that God is still interested in us. We who believe in the nativity are the very ones who give the impression of accepting the present situation with resignation, and facing the future with little confidence. It should be the opposite. God has placed his trust in our world, to the extent of becoming a citizen of the world, Jesus, the Son of Mary. Why then do we hesitate to have confidence in our world? Why are we, the people who believe in the incarnation, the very people who have least trust in mankind and in the world? God has revealed himself as a man, weak and needy like each one of us and like all the other people we meet in life. Why, then, do we fail to see in every human gesture, the gesture of God, his smile or his plea for help? One thing is certain: we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we will find God in our dreams or far away in heaven. He is not to be found there!
Maybe this is the root cause of the sadness with which we live our faith in the incarnation: we do not find God because we are looking for him where he is not to be found. Our Christian God is always close at hand, in our neighbour, in the person who has need of us. This is the cause of our joy. When we learn to discover God so near to us, we will always have God with us. We will meet him in every encounter. We will recognise him in every human face. Having God so close to us cannot but restore our happiness in living. We do not have to desert the world of human beings in order to meet the Christian God, so there is no reason why we cannot live close to him. He is close to us and therefore we find joy and happiness in life.
Our joy does not depend on what we get out of life, but on the certainty that we do not have to lose what God has given us and continues to give us in life. The upcoming feast of Christmas should not be reduced to a family feast we celebrate once a year. Rather it gives us an authentic programme of life. The celebration of Christmas makes us feel that we belong to the family of God. Believing that God has become one of us has clear consequences. If God did not disdain to become human, then there is something divine, something of great value, in being human like our God. When we know that as human beings we belong to the family of God, no matter where we are or what happens, we have no excuse for sadness.
The best witness to God’s coming among us was a man who had nothing more to say than that he was not the one who was to come and they should not mistake him for the Messiah. Surely then we can find courage and strength to bear witness to Christ in our world. It is enough to know that he is coming, and that we are not worthy of him, not worthy even to be his servants. However, we have to proclaim him with our lives, with works that bear witness to him and words that make him known. To be Christ’s precursor we do not have to be better than others. It is enough to be Christian. Everyone who knows that God has chosen to be among us is called, like John the Baptist, to serve as his spokesperson.
If we put ourselves at the service of this God that we are waiting for, we will regain the joy of living in this world, the joy the Son of God found when he lived among the people of Galilee. If the world and its people were considered worthy of our God, what reason have we to be unhappy with it? It seems, indeed, that the world is lacking the hope in life and joy of living that are part of our Christian patrimony. Of what value will one more celebration of the birth of Christ be if it does not make us believers more human and more joyful?