John’s Testimony

“He came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, so that through him all men might learn to believe. ” (John 1:7)

Homily for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

He was sent to bear witness to the light

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?

Today’s Readings:
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

Jesus Redeems our Baptism

By being baptized, Jesus redeemed our Baptism.

Homily for the Baptism of the Lord, January 12, 2020.

Jesus Redeems our Baptism

Note: this homily was preached on January 12, 2020. It was posted online on January 17, 2020.

Why did Jesus insist on being baptized?

Battesimo di Cristo (Baptism of Christ) – Andrea Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci

It was not even the same as the sacramental baptism we now receive. Strictly speaking, it had no power of law over the people. Jesus had no need of John’s baptism. John knew this. He protested Jesus’s request. Jesus replied to these protests, saying, “Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” What does this mean, though? How would Jesus receiving John’s baptism fulfill righteousness?

John’s baptism was one of repentance. It had no sacrament power to forgive sins, but it allowed people to show God that they recognized their sinfulness and that they desired to repent and be closer to him. In receiving John’s baptism, Jesus showed solidarity with us. He had no need to repent. It is quite impossible for God himself to sin, but Jesus was also fully human. He knew that we need to repent. He wanted to be with us in every way possible. There is an ancient principle within Christianity, it goes back to at least St. Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century. In the fourth century, we, as a church, still had a lot to figure out. Many heresies attacked the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully God at the same time. People were scandalized that God would demean himself so much that he would become a human being. In fact, some say that this scandal goes back to before the creation of the universe itself—that Satan’s refusal to follow God was based on the fact that God was going to become human. Anyway, the principle St. Gregory Nazianzus articulated was the idea that anything which is not assumed is not redeemed. If Jesus had not been fully human, if he had not lived a fully human experience, then we could not be healed of our sins and saved. Jesus allowed a baptism of repentance so that he could experience the very human experience of repentance. He experienced human repentance and purified it, he healed it, he made our repentance holy.

While John’s baptism could not change Jesus, Jesus did change baptism. By being baptized in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus communicated his holiness to those waters. By submitting to John’s baptism of water, he made the waters of baptism holy. His holiness was contagious. That water communicated the holiness to all the rest of the water on the planet, by virtue of the water cycle and all that science stuff we learned about in grade school, and so now all water has been made holy for baptism. When we entered into these now holy waters of repentance in our baptisms, they put to death all that is sinful within us. Then this same sanctified water is used when the Holy Spirit raises us back to life, instilling the fire of Christ in our hearts, as the words that change us and open us up to a new life of grace are pronounced: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This brings me to my final point. Jesus’s Baptism is also an epiphany. We used to celebrate it as a part of Epiphany, and the Eastern Church still celebrates this feast primarily on Epiphany. God reveals himself to us in a couple of critically important ways on this occasion. It is, perhaps, the first time when God the Father, in the voice, God the Holy Spirit, in the dove, and God the Son, as receiving the baptism, are all together and manifesting themselves to the people at the same time. God reveals himself to be a Trinity at Jesus’s baptism. Furthermore, when the Father calls Jesus his Son, it reveals that this person standing before them, Jesus, is truly God, truly divine. God fully reveals himself at the Baptism of Jesus: He shows that Jesus, the Messiah, is truly and fully God and truly and fully man, and God reveals that he is a communion—a community—of persons.

Today, we thank God for the gift of his Baptism, through which he revealed so much of himself to us. We also thank him for the gift of our own baptisms, through which he opens our hearts and our souls to his holy grace which, if we allow it, will lead us back to him in Heaven.

Today’s Readings:
January 12, 2020
Baptism of the Lord, Year A
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17

Desert Preaching

Why was John the Baptist preaching in the desert?

There were so many other places he could have gone. In the Negev, the arid, desert area in Israel, there were—and still are—many towns and cities near the Jordan River, such as Jerusalem. Instead, John waited for people to come to him as he preached repentance to the people of Israel in order to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah.

I think that a large part of the reason the John preached in the desert was precisely because it meant that people would have to go to some effort to reach him. Depending on where John was and where the people come from, I would imagine that it was a day or two’s journey for many of these people to reach John. While it was not an enormous journey, it was also not a small feat to make the trip.

I wonder if perhaps the journey and the barrenness of the desert were not a large part of the point. It wasn’t trivial to get to John in order to hear his message. When you did reach him, there was nothing but a man preaching repentance. Perhaps the hope was to help people recognize that God asks us to journey towards him. Perhaps the hope was to help people recognize that the things of this world are unimportant when it comes to repentance and salvation. Perhaps the hope was to help people recognize that it is their faith in God that drives them towards him, that helps them to prepare for him, that helps them to recognize their sinfulness and turn back toward him.

This could also explain why John was so upset with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. At first glance, John’s anger is odd: wouldn’t it be a good thing if they are repenting? John’s point, though, is that they aren’t. They approach John assuming that by being descendants of Abraham they are saved, but John emphatically explains that their lineage has no bearing on salvation: only their own personal repentance does. In Isaiah today, we hear that a new shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. This new shoot is us, having been grafted onto Jesus’s family tree by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, blossoming by our faith which propels us to follow the will of God. John, that voice crying out in the desert, is preparing the way for the Lord, so that Jesus might set himself up as a signal for the nations, a signal that all might seek out and find.

When we see that signal from Jesus in our lives, we cannot help but move towards it. That doesn’t mean that it will be easy. After all, it wasn’t easy for people to follow John, why should it be any easier to follow God himself? Through this journey of endurance, though, where we suffer in mind, body, and soul, we learn to put our hope in God: our hope that he will grant us eternal life. Through this journey, we learn to put our faith in God, knowing that he can do what he says, because he has the power to give us eternal life. Through this journey we learn to love God, knowing that only he can truly fill our hearts.

Through this journey to find Jesus, that signal to all nations, where we are aided by the sacraments of the Church—notably confession where we learn repentance and the Eucharist where we learn how to worship God and enter into his Divine Life—we learn to conform our hearts and minds to God. St. Paul says to us today, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” May it be so.

Today’s Readings:
December 8, 2019 (published December 27, 2019 at 11:45am)
Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12