A Strange Witness
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
Difference between the Gospels of Mark and John
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
2. Who áre you?
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?
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.
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...
‘...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).