A man appeared, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, so that through him all men might learn to believe. He was not the Light; he was sent to bear witness to the light.John 1:6-8 (Knox Translation)
To whom was John testifying?
I’ve always assumed it is a crowd, but if you look at the verses around today’s Gospel, the crowds were there the day before today’s reading. It doesn’t tell us if the crowd was still there. Maybe there were, but it’s possible they weren’t. Either way, John is testifying. He is possibly testifying to the crowds, but there are two other potential witnesses to his testimony. Before we talk about them, though, let’s talk about that word: testify.
When we hear that word, it evokes the image of a courtroom. Our human system is not always perfect, but let’s imagine how an ideal courtroom would work. Ideally, a courtroom is a place where the truth is discovered. Uncovering the truth is vital in a courtroom, because justice can only be served when the truth is known. To discover the truth, a court asks for—or perhaps compels—witnesses to come forward. The witnesses then recount their experience of an event. There are two things to note about what a witness says. First: they recount an event. An event is something that happened in history. It is an objective fact. The second thing to note: the witness recounts their experience. While the event objectively happened, each person experiences that event differently. Perhaps one witness saw one thing, another witness saw another, and a third witness hear yet another thing. If we want to understand what happened, we must take these statements together, resolve their potential differences, and piece them together into one account. To do this, we have to trust the accounts of the witnesses, because we were not there. We must rely on their testimony; we must trust them. (Remember, this is an ideal courtroom, where we are all seeking the truth, so the witnesses aren’t trying to mislead us!)
So when we talk about testimony, at least in the Bible, we are talking about a person’s experience of an event that happened. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist gives his testimony of the event that revealed to him that Jesus was the Son of God. He testifies that he saw the Spirit descend like a dove from the sky and rest upon Jesus. This was the event that caused John the Baptist to know the Jesus was the Christ. John then tells us why. John had been told previously by the Lord that one would come, that the Spirit would rest on this person and remain on them, and that this person would baptize with the Spirit. God had appointed John as the watchman for his Son. The job of the watchman was to constantly be looking for any hint of news from afar, and to bring that news to those awaiting it. When John recognized these signs of the Messiah, he could not keep quiet: his life’s entire purpose was to proclaim that the Son of God had come.
And so, John testifies. He gives testimony that the event everyone had been waiting for had happened: God had become Man. The Son of God had come. He told them who it was, how he knew, and why he knew.
Now, back to our original question: to whom was John testifying?
The answer? John testifies to anyone awaiting the news that God has become man and that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. John’s job was to watch for this event and to proclaim it to all once he spotted it. He proclaimed it to anyone with him that day. He proclaimed it to himself, for sometimes even the watchman is startled. He proclaimed it to us, via the evangelists.
We are, in a way, judges of John’s testimony. The judge presides over the trial and determines the action that follows as a result of the trial, the investigation of the truth. John has testified to us that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He is the light to the nation foretold by Isaiah. Do we judge his testimony to be true? If John’s testimony is true, then what actions must we now take in response to it?
January 19, 2020
Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; Psalm 40; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34