THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION
OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant, we pray, that, as you preserved her from every stain by virtue of the Death of your Son, which you foresaw, so, through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence. Through our Lord.
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Third Sunday in Advent, Gaudete (Year “B”) - December 11, 2011
WHY JOHN THE BAPTIST MATTERS
[Texts: Isaiah 61.1-2a, 10-11 (Luke 1.46-50, 53, 55); 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28]
With many Christians, the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth was fond of the renowned Isenheim altar-piece (above). In it the German painter Matthias Grünewald (1470/80-1528) represented John the Baptist, beside Christ on the Cross, proclaiming the words “he must increase; I must decrease” (John 3.30).
Since John the Baptist had been beheaded months before the crucifixion of Jesus, the painter, in depicting John at Calvary, was using artistic licence to make a point. Namely, that the Baptist's words had not lost any of their significance with the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, but there, as it were, attained their deepest meaning.
The author of the Fourth Gospel made a similar artistic leap when, in the Prologue (John 1.1-18), he mentioned the appearance of John the Baptist (“a man sent from God”) before getting to the Good News of the Incarnation (“and the Word became flesh and lived among us” [1.14]).
In the remaining part of the first chapter of the gospel (1.19-51), the evangelist John continued his unusual way of looking at time and the associations between various gospel personalities. The Fourth Evangelist effectively disregarded the chronological order in which the relationships between the Baptist, Jesus and their disciples were worked out, in order to focus on his theme, “the testimony given by John” to official Judaism (1.19-28), the people who thronged to the desert (1.29-34) and the Baptist's circle of disciples (1.35-36).
John the Evangelist concluded his first chapter with Jesus' disciples declaring him to be the Messiah (1.41), the Son of God and King of Israel (1.49) on the occasion of their very first encounters with him, instead of after months or years of exposure to his teaching.
In the synoptic gospels, John the Baptist introduces the preaching ministry of repentance and reconciliation which he shared with Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Pharisees and Sadducees went out, with other religious leaders, to the Baptist so as to undergo a baptism of repentance. John directed harsh words at them, questioning the sincerity of their motives (cf. Matthew 3.7-10; Luke 3.7-9).
From John the evangelist's perspective, the Baptist clearly made true his confession and unambiguously denied being the Messiah or another messianic figure such as “Elijah” come back to restore God's people (Malachi 4.5-6) or “the prophet” like Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18.15-19 (“Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No”).
The Baptizer preferred to describe himself by citing an image embedded in the writings of Isaiah (40.3), “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”. It has been said that humility is truth. If so, claiming to be simply a mouthpiece, a voice, manifested great humility on the Baptist's part.
But for the Fourth Gospel, the Baptist was not alone in being humble. Humility would also characterize Jesus' outlook when, later in the gospel, he came to speak of the Father (cf. 4.34; 5.29-30; 14.10). And Jesus foretold that, in the period of the Church, humility would have to become one of the virtues found in the lives of Christian disciples (13.15-17).
Even today, there is much about John the Baptizer that remains shrouded in mystery. Yet all the gospel traditions agree he was a prophetic figure who truly linked Israel's past with a daring anticipation of the new and decisive encounter God intended to bring about with his people (“the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations”).
With simplicity, John the Baptist profoundly acknowledged his condition before God. He accepted that he was simply someone sent to wait for another person more important than himself. It was this one about to come who would give ultimate meaning to John's preaching and ministry: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of His sandal”.
Though many duties were ascribed to slaves in the ancient world, they were spared the indignity of removing the master's sandals. Imagining himself doing a lowly service from which a slave would recoil, the Baptist expressed his unworthiness to relate in this way to the one God would send. In his expression of humility John the Baptist continues to speak a message to the church which, even today, awaits Jesus' definitive coming.
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On GAUDETE SUNDAY (the 3rd of Advent) and on LAETARE SUNDAY (the 4th Sunday of Lent), rose coloured vestments may be worn.
Each word speaks of rejoicing and marks the faithful arriving past the mid-way point of the liturgical season: