Second Sunday of the Year
by Fr. Jack McArdle
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”
(John 1:29-34 NIV)
John the Baptist begins the work which we as a Church have still to continue : To point to Jesus as the Saviour, to tell others who he is, and to encourage them to follow him.
Padre Pio, now entitled Blessed Padre Pio, is a man that is associated with a life of great and many sufferings. One of his greatest crosses in life was the excitement that ensued whenever he appeared. After Mass each morning, he used go up to the organ loft, and spend several hours in prayer. Unfortunately, from where he was he could be seen by those in the church below. When they began pointing to him, and shouting requests to him, he always became quite agitated, as he pointed to the tabernacle, and withdrew from their sight. His role was to point to Jesus, to bring Jesus to people, and people to Jesus. As John the Baptist would say at a later time "I must decrease if he is to increase." A sign-post points towards a place, but it cannot compel you to go there. To see a sign-post marked 'Dublin' doesn't entitle me to claim that I have been in Dublin!
John the Baptist has a very special place in the story of salvation that was to be revealed through Jesus Christ. Jesus said of him : "I tell you there has never been a man, born of woman, who is greater than John the Baptist." That is high praise indeed, especially coming from Jesus himself. John's role was to prepare the way for Jesus. We are all familiar with times like Advent, Lent, etc., times when we prepare to celebrate some special occasion in the life of Jesus. Naturally, it is easy to see that our celebration of the feast will be directly effected by the effort put into the preparation.
The language of John in today's gospel is unusually simple and direct. He is open and honest in telling us that he had no way of recognising who Jesus was, until he was given some clear evidence. He knew the Messiah was going to come, of course, but he had to wait for the sign so that he could identify him when he did come. The sign was the evidence of the Spirit coming upon Jesus, and, indeed, he heard the Father's voice saying that Jesus was his beloved Son, and people should listen to him. A strong identification with Jesus, who he is, and why he has come, is a pre-requisite for anyone hoping to evangelise, or to be evangelised themselves. That is the role of the church. In some ways, the Church has been seen to have almost replaced Jesus, and to point to itself as the means of salvation. All present attempts at renewal in the Church have to do with correcting this misconception.
Baptism has to do with entering into membership, with cleansing and purifying, and with being named. All of these things are part of belonging as a member of the Body of Christ. Baptism is the beginning of a journey. John was the one who began that journey. His form of baptism was limited, because it was about initiation. When Jesus came he would move beyond water, and baptise with the Holy Spirit. This signified a permanent and eternal relationship within the Life of the Trinity. The fact that a priest pours water on the head of a baby gives no guarantee that the baby will grow up to become a Christian. At some stage or other, the grown-up baby must say 'yes' to that Baptism, so that Jesus can anoint with his Spirit, and bring his work to completion within that person.
One way of understanding renewal in the Church is to think of us going back to the time of John the Baptist. It is a question of getting back to basics. We are human, we are continually changing and evolving, and we can so easily lose our way. I myself am a teacher by training, and so I am quite familiar with the concept of revision, and of returning to the basics again and again. (Correcting exams is one way of reminding a teacher that the information was not understood as intended, or that the message was interpreted as presented!).
We are all familiar with Confirmation, even though we may not fully understand the full significance of what it means. The coming of Jesus was strongly confirmed again and again. Long before he came the prophets spoke of his coming, and what would happen when he came. We have the angel appearing to Mary, and to the shepherds at Bethlehem. At his baptism in the Jordan the Father's voice was heard, and the Spirit was seen to come upon him. In today's gospel we have John giving loud and clear confirmation and affirmation as to who Jesus is, and why he came. It is usually many years after our own Confirmation before we, ourselves, begin to grasp just exactly what that is intended to signify. This might have greater power and significance if Confirmation was withheld until we were in our late teens. We then would have a better idea what it means to be confirmed in my beliefs, and to fell confirmed and reassured about my way of life as a Christian.
John's introduction is very simple "Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." I think it very important that we reflect on that statement. If Jesus takes away the sin of the world, then, of course, he can take away my sin. It can be meaningless to get caught up in generalities. For example, I can quote "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son", and never get around to accepting the fact that God so loved me that he gave his only Son.
How clear am I in my thinking about Jesus and the Church? The gospel is about Jesus. Christianity is not about producing nicer people with better morals. I could be a pagan, and be a good person. It is not about prayer and fasting. I could be a Muslim and do that. Christianity is about a person, Jesus Christ. The role of the Church is very simple. When Jesus ascended into heaven, when he returned to the Father, he took the body he had with him. He sent the Holy Spirit to complete his work, and he asks us to provide the hands, feet, voice, etc., through which the Spirit can do that work.
How confirmed do I actually feel as a follower of Jesus Christ? How real is my sense of vocation, of being called? This is purely the work of the Spirit, and this will never become a reality in my life until I open my heart and my mind to the Spirit, and declare my willingness to be anointed by the Spirit. Just as John recognised Jesus, so I should be recognised as a follower of Jesus. You are familiar with the saying that if we were arrested and brought to the nearest police station, where we were charged with being Christian, how many of us would get off scot-free for lack of evidence?!
There is one pitfall open to all of us when we speak of Church. We may fail to remember that we are the Church. It is not a question of us sitting here, waiting for somebody out there, down in the bishop's house, in Rome, or somewhere else to change. If change is to be real for us it must begin within our own hearts. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." Witness is at the heart of Christian living. The witness of the lives of the Christian Community is the evidence that Jesus is present among his people, and that his Spirit rests upon them. I must bring that one step further, look in the mirror, and ask "How do I measure up to the criteria of what it means to be a Christian?"
It takes five years for the seed of a bamboo tree to show any growth above ground, and then it grows to a height of 90 feet in six weeks! Five years of preparation, of putting down roots, of spreading underground, so as to have access to plenty of food. And then, only then, does it take off.
This is an extraordinary fact that requires reflection. The time spent with John the Baptist was preparing the people to meet and follow Jesus. It was like a novitiate. We all need such preparation and formation. The journey moves from information, to formation, to transformation. Surely any failure to grow spiritually in our lives is the result of a lack of genuine preparation, of spiritual formation. To live in the warmth of God's love is a sure and certain way to grow.
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And That's The Gospel Truth copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.