The Third Sunday of Advent [B]
Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11 + 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 + John 1:6-8,19-28
“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, rejoice!”
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John the Baptizer is front and center in our Gospel today. We might ask, “How is John the Baptizer an Advent figure?” We don’t have little figurines of St. John the Baptist that we put in our crèche scenes: he was a six-month old baby, of course, when Jesus was born. In today’s Gospel passage, St. John the Baptist is a grown man, who’s not speaking about getting ready for the birth of Jesus. So how is he an Advent figure? What does his message tell us about our spiritual preparation for Christmas?
If we had to sum up John the Baptizer in one word, that word would be… “witness”. Our translation of today’s Gospel passage uses a slightly different range of words: “testimony” and “testify”. But what do you call a person who testifies, or gives testimony: is “testifier” a word? I think the word “witness” sums up what we’re thinking about when we look at John the Baptizer, because you can use it in three different ways, to describe: (1) who he is; (2) what he does; and (3) what he gives.
To give witness authentically, two things have to be true. You have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to talk truthfully.
On the one hand, the witness that you’re going to give, you have to know to be true. Sometimes we think of the verb “witness” as something passive, as if you were watching TV. But to be a good witness in a court of law, you have to have actively witnessed the events in question: you have to have seen what happened, in what order, and how.
Of course, even if you do know the truth about what happened, you have to be willing to testify, and to do so truthfully. Imagine, for example, that you were standing on a street corner, and saw an accident between two vehicles. You saw very clearly that it was the fault of the first vehicle.
But then the drivers get out of their vehicles, and you notice that the driver of the first vehicle is your grandmother. Suddenly, the police pull up. Do you go up to the scene of the accident, knowing that the police will ask for your name and a statement? Or do you turn away from the scene, so that you won’t be called into court to give witness? What motivates us to give witness, or not to give witness?
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John the Baptizer was not called to give witness about an event. And neither are we. John the Baptizer was called to give witness about a person: the person of Jesus Christ. For John the Baptizer to give authentic witness about Jesus, two things had to be the case: (1) he had to know what he was talking about, and (2) he had to talk truthfully.
In terms of John the Baptizer knowing what he was talking about, we have to recognize that there’s a big difference between knowing facts, and knowing a person. There’s a big difference between knowing—say—algebra, and knowing another person. There’s also an important difference between knowing facts about a person—such as their date of birth, or height, or favorite color—and knowing the person personally. To know a person personally, means to have a relationship with that person.
The same is true of each of us, if we are to be a disciple—a follower—of Jesus. It is not enough to know about Jesus. The devil himself knows far more about Jesus than you or I are ever likely to know (the devil, like all angels, is a creature of great intelligence). To know Jesus personally, as His disciple, means to recognize Him for who He says He is: the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the Lord and meaning of our world. … I guarantee you that the devil will never call Him those things.
To know Jesus personally means to know Him as our Lord. But that’s not enough to give witness to Jesus. Remember again John the Baptizer.
For John the Baptizer to give authentic witness about Jesus, the second thing that had to be the case was that John had to talk truthfully. We might think that this is easy: after all, I’m sure no one here has ever lied about the meaning of Jesus. I’m sure that none of you ever said to someone at a party, “Jesus is not important to me.” You’ve never told someone at the grocery store that “Jesus is just a person of historical importance, like Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr.” I doubt that any of you has ever tried to convince someone on your block that Jesus was just an inspiring guru, like Moses or Buddha, Confucius or Mohammed. You’ve never said any of those things.
Unfortunately, none of those statements is the real problem today when it comes to talking truthfully about the meaning of Jesus. Because the need “to talk truthfully” has two opposites. That is, there are two ways not “to talk truthfully”. The first is “to talk falsely”.
The second is “not to talk”, period. And unfortunately, this is the way that most of us fail to give true witness to Jesus. Whenever we pray the Confiteor at the beginning of Mass, what do we say to God? “I have sinned through my own fault… in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.”
But the last time that you were in the confessional, did you say anything about your call from God to give witness to Jesus? When was the last time that you said to someone at a party, “Jesus means more to me than any other person in my life”? When was the last time that you told someone at the grocery store that the teachings of Jesus offer the greatest possible happiness to every human person? When was the last time that you asked someone on your block if they believed in Jesus? Is it wrong to do so?
It is certainly culturally wrong. The culture that surrounds us vilifies and ridicules those who bring their relationship with Jesus to bear on other relationships in their lives. The culture that surrounds us reduces the meaning of loving Jesus to an interior, subjective feeling, rather than being a communal, objective truth.
In fact, Jesus wasn’t born into this world in order to be “one way among many”, or “one person’s opinion”, or an “alternative lifestyle”.
Jesus was born into this world to be, for every human being, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. God calls us, as He called John the Baptizer, to give others joyful, truthful witness about the difference that Jesus makes in human life.
St. John the Baptist by Alvise Vivarini (c. 1442- c. 1503)