A Strange Witness

Published on 11 Dec 2017

A reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent

Dries van den Akker SJ

John 1:6-08, 19-28

06            A man came, sent by God.
               His name was John.
07           He came as a witness,
               to bear witness to the light,
               so that everyone might believe through him.
08           He was not the light,
               he was to bear witness to the light.
19         This was the witness of John,
            when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem
            to ask him, 'Who are you?'
20         He declared, he did not deny but declared,
             'I am not the Christ.'
21         So they asked,
            'Then are you Elijah?'
            He replied, 'I am not.'
          'Are you the Prophet?'
          He answered, 'No.'
22         So they said to him,  
             'Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us.
            What have you to say about yourself?'
23         So he said,
            'I am, as Isaiah prophesied: A voice of one that cries in the desert:
            Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight!'
24         Now those who had been sent were Pharisees,
25         and they put this question to him,
'Why are you baptising
if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the Prophet?'
26         John answered them,
            'I baptise with water; but standing among you - unknown to you-
27         is the one who is coming after me;
            and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandal.'


1. John the Baptist

On the third Sunday of Advent, looking forward to Christmas, we are again invited to see and to listen to John the Baptist. In the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist had to prepare the way for the Messiah who would come after him. He played the role of Elijah. About this prophet the Jews believed (and have always done so) that he would announce the coming of the Messiah.
In the St John’s Gospel we meet John the Baptist again, and again we hear that he is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah. He has to prepare the way for ‘the coming the one that comes’. And He who comes is so great that John says of himself that he is not fit to undo the strap of his sandal. That was the work of a slave. So, the distance between John the Baptist and ‘the one who is coming’ is enormous. He (Christ) is so great that John could not even be his slave. So far, there is not much difference between the Gospels of Mark and John…

Difference between the Gospels of Mark and John

But there is, indeed! Saint Mark presented John the Baptist as the person of Elijah. In the Gospel of Saint John, John the Baptist even denies that he is the prophet Elijah. Here his role is to witness. That is a new aspect of the person of John the Baptist, typical of the Gospel of Saint John.
Saint John loves the word ‘witness’. He uses it at least fourteen times in his Gospel. Most of the times occur when Jesus bears witness to what he has seen. That is to say: in his existence before being a human person, Jesus witnessed the doings of his Father in heaven. And as a human being he bears witness to what he has seen. What he does as a human being is what he has seen his Father doing (cf. 3:32-33; 5:31-36).
Or we look at the end of the Gospel, where the writer, Saint John, is standing before the cross and witnesses blood and water coming from Jesus’ side, ‘And the one who has seen it, bears witness to it; and his witness is true...’ (19:35). To be a witness means that I have seen something and that I tell about what I saw.

 A relief scuplture depicting John the Baptist

John the Baptist  (middle: in his cloak made of camelhair and a book in his hands) between a priest (left) and a levite (right with book as well). In full discussion. The priest with his teaching finger  to John; John with his right hand to the priest; the levite with his right hand as well. 12th century. Italy, Parma, Battisterio

Strange witness

Back to John the Baptist. Now, we realise what strange witness he gives. The witness of John the Baptist consists of saying what he isn’t: he is not the Messiah (the Christ); not Elijah; not the prophet. Is that giving witness? We would have expected him to say: ‘I have seen the one who is coming, and I can tell you...’ But he doesn’t. And those who are asking him, don’t ask: ‘What did you see? You were witness of what?’ No, they ask: ‘Who are you?’
This question prepares us, listeners, for the person of Jesus, in two different ways.

2. Who áre you?

[When the Pharisees ask John the Baptist, ‘Who Áre you?’ He answers, ‘No, I ám not [the Christ... Elijah.... the prophet]’ (1:20, 21,27). 
In the Greek text, John uses the word ‘áre’. Strictly speaking, that is not necessary. But by using  the word, he emphasizes it. Therefore I translate it with accent mark. So, in the background of the question, we hear the name of the Lord himself: ‘I ám...’
After John the Baptist, it will be Jesus who shall say ‘I ám!’ Several times.
4:26: ‘I ám: the one who speaks to you’;
6:20: ‘I ám: don’t fear’;
6:35: ‘I ám the bread of life’ (6,48.51);
6:41: ‘I ám the bread that desended from heaven’;
8:12: ‘I ám the light of the world’;
8:58: ‘Before Abraham was, I ám!’
10:7: ‘I ám the door of the sheep’ (10:09);
10:9: ‘I ám the good shephard’ (10:14);
10:36: ‘I ám son of God’;
11:25: ‘I ám the resurrection and the life’;
14:06: ‘I ám the way, the truth and the life’...

This list is not exhaustive; it is only a selection! So, the question of the Pharisees indirectly points to Jesus. He is the one of whom we can say that 'he ís’. Therefore, John the Baptist indicates someone who will come after him. So to speak: ‘Ask him this question, And he will answer: ‘Indeed, I ám.’

From where áre you?
But during the Gospel of Saint John, the big question about Jesus is not ‘Who áre you?’ No, the big question is: ‘From where’ he ís (7:27-28; 8:14; 9:29-30 etc.). We think of the
dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus says to him: ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ (3:3). That’s where Jesus comes from: from above.
The Christmas carols will sing about this mystery.
Summit of this question: when Pilate asks Jesus: ‘From where áre you? (19:09). Both aspects of Jesus in one question. Pilate uses the word ‘áre’! And he asks from where Jesus ís!
The answer to this question, Saint John gave it already on the first page of his Gospel.

 A painting showing Jesus talking to Nicodemus

Jesus to Nicodemus: ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ These words are spoken in the darkness of the night. But Jesus’ light is shining in the darkness! 1661, panel painting. Germany, Itzehoe, St-Jürgenkapelle.

3. Happened

The first fragment of today’s Gospel reading comes from the opening hymn of Saint John’s Gospel. The reading starts with the line ‘A man came, sent by God. His name was John.’ In this translation we don’t hear anymore what is obvious in the Greek original text. Literally taken, it should be translated as: ‘A man happened, sent by God, his name: John.’ Why is this so important? The word ‘happened’ occurs many, many times in all four Gospels. They took it from the Old the Old Testament way of saying, ‘It happened...’ (Greek: egeneto). It suggests that God writes his history through our human history: history of salvation. Using the word ‘happened’, John continues this history of salvation. God continues to write history with the coming of John the Baptist, and after him with the coming of Jesus.

Today’s reading ends with verse 27 of John’s first chapter. Should we read one verse further, we should hear: ‘This happened in Bethany...’ Again the word ‘happen’. God writes his history of salvation through our human history.

Being and Happening

But there is more. Every Bible reader knows very well the beginning of the opening hymn of Saint John’s Gospel:

1           In the beginning wás the Word:
the Word wás with God (literally: ‘unto God’)
and the Word wás God.
2           He wás with God in the beginning.

Saint John emphasizes the word ‘was’ using it four times where it isn’t necessary at all in the Greek language, strictly speaking. So, I gave it an accent mark. In the background we hear the name of God ‘I ám...’ In Saint John’s vision, that is where Jesus came from. In the beginning he wás, sharing the ‘being’ of God as his Logos, his Word. Sharing the way God exists. The existence of God is something beyond our history. So, God ís, and history ‘happens’. God is eternal, remaining; history is changing, goes by. But the miracle of our God is that - from his ‘eternal béing’ - He enters into our fluid history. That is the summit of Saint John’s hymn: ‘And the word happened(!) to become flesh...’ (01,14). But before Saint John comes to this summit, he sings about the ‘happening’ of John the Baptist. Beautiful alternation. First he uses the word ‘wás’:

1.       In the beginning wás the Word:
the Word wás with God (litterally: ‘unto God’)
and the Word wás God.
2.       He wás with God in the beginning.
3.       All happened through him.
Suddenly the word ’happens’. History comes forth out of the ‘béing’ of the word. That things ‘happen’ comes from Him. Back to the word ‘wás’:
4.       In him wás life
            and the life wás the light of the people.
5.       And the light shines in (not into!) the darkness
            [The - everlasting béing -  light is always shining in the darkness]
            and the darkness didn’t take it.
Back to ‘happen’:
6.       Happened a man, sent by God...
            [Follows the reading of today].
8.       That one wás not the light, but that he should witness about the light.
Back to ‘wás’:
9.       Wás the light truly...
10.       In the world wás it
            and the world - happend by him - didn’t know...
And so on. Till the summit:
14.       And the word happened to become flesh...

 A black and white engraving (modern) showing Jesus among the people of the Netherlands

 ‘...standing among you - unknown to you - is the one who is coming after me...’ His light shines in the darkness (01,05). Also today. 1958, Massereel. Netherlands.

It is a pity that the reading of today begins with the historical ‘happening’ of John the Baptist. Now we don’t hear that this ‘happening’ is framed by God’s ‘béing’. That our history is framed by God’s ‘béing’. That the feast of Christmas tells us that God enters into our history from his way of ‘béing’, to make clear to us that his everlasting light shines in the darkness of our world. Also today. And that we - in our historical way of ‘happening’ - are invited to see it with the eyes of our faith. That we have to be reborn from above (cf. John 3:03).





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