John 1:6–8, 19–28
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.
Hearing the Word
“Testimony to Grace”
Preparation for the Lord’s coming was the theme of the first two Sundays of Advent. The third Sunday of Advent reflects on the appropriate response to the Lord’s promises. A Christian who confidently trusts in them and gives testimony to God’s grace, both experienced and anticipated, experiences the Lord’s presence in a powerful and transforming way. This experience finds its expression in superabundant joy.
In the first reading, Isaiah presents his credentials for the prophetic ministry. He reports the anointing with God’s Spirit he experienced. The Spirit enabled him to carry out his mission, and made him like the “servant of the Lord” (cf. Isa 42:1; 48:16) who also received the Spirit in order to rescue God’s suffering people from injustice and persecution. The prophet is well and fully aware of his call to “bring good news” to those on the margins and to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”, which means to declare God’s closeness to those “who mourn in Zion” (Isa 61:3). The God of Israel desires to restore his people and sends his prophet to make this known. The same words – some centuries later – would be adopted by Jesus himself in the synagogue of Nazareth to describe his own salvific mission in the world (cf. Luke 4:18-19).
In the second part of the reading, the prophet rejoices and exults as he celebrates God’s salvation. He is so confident as to present it as something that has already occurred in such words as “he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness”. The “robe of righteousness” refers to God’s gratuitous gift to him and the great dignity resulting from it. This leads the prophet to compare himself to a bridegroom and the bride beautifully adorned. The images of bridegroom and bride evoke the covenant and the great rejoicing of Israel at the prospect of experiencing God’s grace and presence anew. This renewal of the nation in righteousness is beautifully compared to spring, when the earth bursts forth with fruits and flowers, representing the life and fruitfulness which the Israelites so much desired. It also includes expressions of praise and thanksgiving, which will be echoed later in the canticle of Mary at her visit to Elisabeth (cf. Luke 1:46-55). The joy of God’s grace and closeness cannot be kept hidden. The prophet experienced it and desired to share it with the entire world thereby testifying to God’s grace and gracious deeds for his people.
The second reading comes from the conclusion of the first letter to Thessalonians where St Paul gives a series of instructions and recommendations on how the newly converted Christians in Thessalonica are to behave. The passage we read today focuses on the prayer life of the community. The apostle instructs the members using short imperative statements to “rejoice”, “pray” and “give thanks”. These three forms of worship are, in the words of Paul, “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”.
We must take into account the fact that the community in Thessalonica was very new and the believers experienced great difficulties when they became Christians, including rejection and harassment by their neighbours. Paul himself had to flee the city because of violent opposition to his teaching and threats against his life. He left the Christians behind to face the difficult circumstances without his presence, and, like a good father, was very concerned about them. In his exhortation, Paul emphasises the need for consistency using such word as “always”, “without ceasing”, and “in all circumstances”. He also speaks of the “quenching of the Spirit”. He knows that the difficult life circumstances of the community might affect them to the point of disrupting their life of prayer and hindering the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Yet, the apostle encourages them to remain faithful to the prayer of rejoicing, thanksgiving and praise despite the unfavourable situation. He wants them to understand that difficult conditions must not dominate their life and cause them to lose the hope of salvation. To assure them that the hope they place in Jesus is not misguided, Paul emphasizes God’s fidelity stating, “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this”. Reassuring them that God will complete the work of their sanctification, Paul aims to make them steadfast in giving testimony to God’s grace working in them regardless of the circumstances. Joyful prayers are certainly one way to accomplish this.
The Gospel reading, like last week’s, focuses on John the Baptist. However, today we hear about a different aspect of his mission, that of giving testimony to Jesus. God sent John for the specific purpose of testifying to Jesus who, in John 1:4-5, was identified as the “light of all people”. This light, Jesus, “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). John’s mission was to announce him to the world as the one coming from God with true revelation (John 1:7-8).
John was a respected and well-known figure, calling people to repentance and baptizing them. For this reason, Jewish leaders sent delegates to enquire whether he was someone really important. Yet, John confesses that he is not the “Messiah” – the one anointed as king or priest – or “Elijah” – the one whose return was to happen before the “day of the Lord” (cf. Mal 3:23) – or “the prophet” like Moses (cf. Dt 18:15). Rather he humbly spoke of himself as a “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”, who prepares the “the way of the Lord” with his testimony. John gave testimony to who he truly was even though he could have claimed for himself the more noble titles of Messiah, or Elijah or a prophet, which is exactly what people expected him to be. He then proceeded to point to Jesus as the one coming from God. Doing so, he gave testimony to the grace of God that appeared in their midst. Later in the Gospel, John will say that he “rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s [Jesus] voice” and that his “joy has been fulfilled” (John 3:29) as he witnessed Jesus’ work in the world.
Giving testimony to God’s grace operating in the world is the basic task of any and every believer. Isaiah did that when, guided by the Spirit, he rejoiced at the promised renewal of Israel. Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to pray unceasingly with joy and thanksgiving and without quenching the Spirit, in spite of adversity, hostilities and rejection by the surrounding world. John the Baptist was a remarkable person who did not claim for himself any noble or grand title. Rather, he testified to the true identity of Jesus, recognising that God’s grace came into the world through the Light made flesh. Testimony to that grace brought him great joy and fulfilment. The same came true also in the life of Mary who, when testifying to God’s grace to her cousin Elizabeth, felt an overwhelming joy which led her to say “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.
Listening to the Word of God
Today’s liturgy invites us to reflect on the theme of testimony to grace. God’s grace manifests itself in numerous ways. For us Catholics, grace chiefly means that God makes us his children who receive salvation as a gift, and not because of our own merits. This offer of adoption and salvation is truly amazing, considering that we have done nothing to deserve it. We can testify to this amazing grace when we realize and acknowledge that all we are comes to us as a gift, and that relying on our own strength we are nothing and can do nothing (cf. John 15:5). As Africans, we live in that awareness, even if unconsciously. This is evident in instances when we exchange greetings. Often, a person, when asked, “how are you?” responds, “by his grace I am fine”.
Grace can also operate in very ordinary ways. The canticles of Mary and Zachariah, which we read many times during this season, help us to understand its meaning in relation to daily life. Looking closely at the words of these great biblical figures we discover that the word grace means the favour, mercy and love that God showers on us daily. They were ordinary people like us, but they had great faith and always trusted in God’s providence and mercy. Then, one ordinary day they experienced God’s grace in unexpected and overwhelming ways. Many of us pay much attention to the great miracles we hear about from televangelists and preachers whose only purpose is to perform miracles and attract paying followers. Yet, does God really work in that way? The Scriptures show us that God works mainly in and through the ordinary situations of our daily life lifting and uplifting us in the seemingly unimportant details of our lives.
We can bear testimony to God’s grace working in our lives if we reflect on each and every moment of our lives and make the effort to see God’s grace and love in them. How often do we recognize that getting up in the morning, having a meal or being able to work are all God’s grace? The grace of God also works in nature, in the sunrise and the rain. Do we perceive these as reflections of God’s grace? This list of ordinary reflections of grace goes on and on.
John the Baptist testified to Jesus as the Light of the world. He saw this grace incarnated, and shared his joy with others. As we draw closer to the celebration of Christmas and prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus and to receive grace after grace we ought to imitate him in radiating the light and grace that we ourselves have received. By giving testimony to grace, we will be able to uplift others and console the broken-hearted. All too often, we focus on what we do not have, which depresses us and prevents us from being joyful and generous. Let us resolve, as we approach the season of blessing, to be generous in sharing our joy that flows from faith in the one who has been so gracious as to share his life with us. Doing so, we will follow St Paul’s call to “rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances”, and, like John the Baptist, become witnesses to God’s grace. If we allow that grace to shine through us by sharing it, we will also become “the light of the world”.
“Happiness is like a field you can harvest every season.”
Do I recognize God grace operating in my life? What are the daily graces that I take for granted and overlook?
What is my focus when praying to God and talking to others? Do I focus on the negative experiences in my life or do I see the positive and the beautiful experiences in it?
Response to God
In the course of this week, I resolve to pay attention to the daily graces coming in different forms and events, and thank God for them.
Response to your World
This week I will express my gratitude for the goodness of the Lord by blessing someone in need in my community by sharing my food, clothes, or something else that I value.
As a group, we will create a forum where each member will freely share what the Lord has done to him or her, and conclude the gathering with the common prayer of thanksgiving.
God Heavenly Father, we praise and glorify your holy name. We recognise your mighty power and graces in our lives, for we know that without you we cannot accomplish anything. We ask you to give us your Spirit so that we may bring good tidings to those who are in need of consolation and hope, so that through us they can experience and be touched by your grace. We make our prayer through Christ our Lord.
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.