Year B Advent 3rd Sunday: John 1:6-8.19-28

1:06 A man came, sent by God. His name was John.
1:07 He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
1:08 He was not the light, he was to bear witness to the light.

1:19 This was the witness of John, when the Jews sent to him
priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?'
1:20 He declared, he did not deny but declared, 'I am not the Christ.'
1:21 So they asked, 'Then are you Elijah?'
He replied, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' He answered, 'No.'
1:22 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?'
1:23 So he said, 'I am, as Isaiah prophesied: A voice of one that cries in the desert:
Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight!'
1:24 Now those who had been sent were Pharisees,
1:25 and they put this question to him, 'Why are you baptising
if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the Prophet?'
1:26 John answered them,
'I baptise with water; but standing among you - unknown to you -
1;27 is the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandal.'
1:28 This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.

In the opening hymn of his Gospel John (1:1-18) announces that John the Baptist gave witness about the coming of Jesus. The composers of the liturgy placed those lines from the opening hymn at the beginning of the reading which tells about the witness John the Baptist gave about himself… and Jesus.

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, John is called the Baptist. That is not the case in John’s Gospel. Sure, John is baptizing, but here is much more important his role as a witness. The whole scene is pictured in terms of a preliminary hearing. The authorities in the religious center of Jerusalem send an investigation committee consisting of temple priests and Levites. They have to report their results to those who sent them.

They are asking who he is. They are apparently not interested in his name nor in his mission. Three times they have the same question, asking if John is fitting in their religious categories. Three times John’s answer is clear, ‘I am not!’ He does not fit. So they are asking for his justification, ‘how can you baptize if you are not…?’ John witnesses that he is ‘only’ the voice of which Isaiah spoke in his prophecies, the one who prepares the way for the Lord.

Actually, a strange witness. A witness is somebody who testifies to he saw. In this context John is not asked what he saw. He will tell that later (1:29-34).

This event takes place ‘in Bethany, on the opposite side of the Jordan’. Look at the map: there is no place called Bethany. Nevertheless John mentions the name of Bethany (‘house of the poor’). Bethany was at a distance of fifteen miles from Jerusalem where Lazarus will be raised from the dead later (11:1). Is John anticipating that event by mentioning the name of Bethany? Is Bethany the place from where you go to new life? That seems to be confirmed by the word ‘the opposite side of the Jordan’. That was the place where - according to tradition - Moses made his speech to God’s people before they entered into the new life of the Holy Land (Deuteronomy 1:1); where he gave the choice to the people between the way either to death or to life (Deuteronomy 30:15). It was the place from where God’s people entered the Holy Land guided by Joshua (Joshua 1:2).

Picture Meditation

This 19th century stained glass illustrates John’s words ‘…standing among you - unknown to you - is the one who is coming after me…’ I took it in France, Brittany, Dinan, St-Malo. (photographed by Fr Dries)

John - in his camel-hair garment, but without his leather belt! - is placed a little bit higher than his audience. So his word can be heard by everybody. The people are looking up to him. The men, standing on the right, are they the priests and Levites from Jerusalem?

I look at all these people. How are they listening? What is going on in their heads, in their hearts? Is there a difference between the sitting and the standing people? Between the men and the women? And with whom of them could I identify myself? How am I listening to John’s words? Does he make me curious about the one who will come after him?

Behind John, still a little bit higher than John, we see Jesus. Apparently not noticed by the audience. How often did it happen in my life that Jesus was there and I didn’t notice him at the moment itself, but later? How did I - after all - recognize Jesus’ presence? Is it an idea to make a litany of these events?

The composition of the artist gives the impression that John is the spokesman of Jesus. Who is…, who are…, who was…, who were Jesus’ spokespersons in my life? Perhaps I could make a litany of them as well?

I finish with a talk with one of the listening people; with John the Baptist; with Jesus.

by Fr Dries van den Akker SJ