Today, once more, we focus on the figure of St John the Baptist. This time from the gospel of John. This gospel labels John the Baptist as the witness. John the Baptist has many names but perhaps witness is the greatest of his titles. How does John the Baptist witness? What can he teach us about the act of witness? Let’s have a look at some of the things he does.
First, we know that even before he was born he danced for joy in the presence of Jesus. He therefore starts in rejoicing. This is the first act of witness. Joy in the knowledge of the presence of God, of the coming of our saviour. Let’s not underestimate this act of witness. Joy is attractive, and so more people will pay attention to what a joyful witness will say.
What else does St John the Baptist do? Well, in knowing who God is, he also knows super clearly that he is not God. This is the humility that we find so clearly in both him and our Lord. We should remember that at the time and for a while after John the Baptist was more famous than Jesus. We hear how popular he was in the Gospels. Yet, still, he did not hesitate to declaim his own position.
Saying that we are not God sounds obvious, but it is not. We often say we know this, but act differently. We say we are not God, but we act as though good and evil were determined by us. We know that St John the Baptist calls everyone to a baptism of repentance. Repentance can only occur when we admit that we are wrong, and we can only admit that we are wrong when we submit ourselves to judgment, the judgment of the Word of God. Do we witness in this way to God? Do we hold ourselves accountable? Do we strive to follow the teachings of the Church, the life of Christ?
What else does John the Baptist do? Well, most obviously he points to Jesus. We know that to his own disciples he points out the Lamb of God. He announces his presence. This is of course what a witness does, announce what one has witnessed. Tell the truth. And John the Baptist announces the coming of the Holy Spirit, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the coming of the messiah, all in the person of Jesus Christ. Do we do this? Do we ever talk about Jesus to others? Do we ever point out the divine in life to our neighbours?
What else does John the Baptist do? Well, we know that he announces that he, John, must decrease and Jesus must increase. What does he mean by this? Well, this is obviously a case of humility. But I think it is more than that. This is the deep truth of his witness. In witnessing to Jesus, John is witnessing to divine love made flesh. To witness to this love is to participate in it. To participate in it is to become love of God and love of neighbour. In loving God, John cannot help but desire to share Jesus, in loving neighbour John cannot help but to introduce us to Jesus. He wants to get out of the way. He wants his witness to disappear, he wants our knowledge of God through him to be replaced by immediate knowledge. He wants us to know God ourselves He wants to disappear, to evanesce, and Jesus to assume his rightful place in our hearts.
And all of these things – his joy, his humility, his testifying, his desire to become transparent for love of God and love of neighbour – are fulfilled in his martyrdom, the preeminent act of witness. As we know, the Greek word for witness is martyr. In the early church, martyrdom was of supreme importance. It was seen as the ultimate participation in the life of Christ and therefore a fulfilment of the Eucharist. The martyr became transparent for Christ, passing over fully into the divine life and therefore incarnating Christ on earth. A martyrdom was a supreme moment of grace for all who saw it, and was understood to create witnesses. Those who witnessed martyrdom saw God’s love incarnate and so became witnesses themselves.
This is the final understanding of witness, which St John the Baptist shows us. It is the supreme responsibility of living the life of Christ, such that we dissolve the distance between heaven and earth for our brothers and sisters. Our joy must flood their lives. Our lives must constantly point to Jesus. We must get out of the way of the Holy Spirit. Finally, we must die for love of God and love of neighbour, and so become a real presence of Christ on earth, a true member of the Church, the body of Christ and the temple of the holy Spirit.
So, today, let’s ask John the Baptist to intercede for us. Let us pray for his clarity, his boldness and his humility. But most of all let us witness joyfully like him to the presence of the Lamb of God, Emmanuel, God with us.