There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. …..
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. 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.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8 & 19-28 – NRSV)
See the introductory notes for Advent Week Two.
The opening sentences in today’s Gospel introduce a theme prominent in John – “light”. The theme of light is in fact present throughout the bible. The separation of light and darkness is mentioned at the beginning of the Bible, it was the first act of the Creator – see Genesis 1:3-4. At the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God is identified with light (21:23). Our destiny is to pass over into unending light (1 John 1:5). Matthew cites Isaiah to introduce the preaching and teaching of Jesus: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” (4:16)
As we saw in the notes last week, all four Gospels speak of John the Baptist announcing the Messiah – see Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:1–8 and Luke 3:1–20. All of them refer to Isaiah – see 40:3.
“Who are you?” is a question that emerges – sooner or later, consciously or unconsciously – in the heart of every human being. Humanly speaking, one of our first tasks is to find out what we are not. “I am not the Messiah”. I am not my father or mother. I am not my older brother or sister. Nor am I the idealized image I have created of myself together with those around me.
We might think of the question as its self a “witness” of things to come. Our response therefore is to pay close attention, to listen. Our task is to facilitate the emergence or unfolding of who and what I am.
Becoming who and what I am is not conquest but gift. There is a lot of waiting. The temptation is to rush, to grab, to master. If I submit to those temptations I will do in ignorance, never becoming who and what I am. I may in fact become very “successful” in the eyes of those around me. But they will be impressed with a fiction.
The question of identity urges us to embark on a journey. Like the people being led out of Egypt or Lazarus being called forth from the tomb or the disciples being sent back from Emmaus to Jerusalem, we are constantly being summoned by life. The journey is actually a shifting centre of gravity, a movement away from self-focus towards self-transcendence.
Slowly we come to see that the important question is not, “What do I want from life?” but “What does life want from me?”