We have in today’s Gospel an interesting interrogation. The priests and levites came out from Jerusalem to find out who this John the Baptist was, and whether he was the Messiah.
And it is probably a quite accurate description of the events that day, because after all St John the Evangelist the author of the Gospel today was a close disciple of John the Baptist and was undoubtedly present on that occasion. Hence all the detail about the interrogation. A few verses further on it is mentioned that our Evangelist was there the following day when John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to him and his companion Andrew.
If you read the text carefully you will see that Jesus himself was surely present on the occasion referred to in today’s Gospel. Why else would John the Baptist say: ‘There stands among you, unknown to you, the one who is coming after me’? Then the very next day John the Baptist quietly points out Jesus to John and his companion Andrew and more or less directs them to follow Jesus.
It is a small detail but quite interesting. It makes the priests and levites out to be a bit on the slow side, them questioning John asking him if he was the Messiah when the real Messiah was standing right next to them. Who says there is no humour in the Gospels?
The priests and levites ask John three questions: ‘Are you the Christ?’ ‘Are you Elijah?’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ Then they ask a fourth: ‘If you are not the Christ, or Elijah or the Prophet then why are you baptising?’
John answered the first three questions quite honestly by saying no to them all. The first and the last were really the same question since the Christ and the Prophet were words used interchangeably for the Messiah.
But John the Baptist, if you think about it, wouldn’t have been very far wrong if he had said he was Elijah. Elijah was supposed to return as an immediate precursor to the Messiah. And actually, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus after coming down from the Mount of the Transfiguration referred to John the Baptist as Elijah.
After seeing the vision of Moses and Elijah on either side of Jesus when he was transfigured, Peter, James and John asked, ‘We know that you are the Messiah, but how is it that Elijah did not come to announce your coming?’ Jesus replied, clearly referring to John the Baptist, ‘Elijah has come already.’ (Mt 17,12)
The fourth question is also worth some reflection, ‘Why then are you baptising?’ John, of course, does not directly answer but makes a declaration that the Messiah is already here and he says with heavy irony, ‘he is standing among you.’ Those proud priests go away unsatisfied and with hatred in their hearts, confirmed in their ignorance and determined that they would punish John for his impudence.
We too face such questions. We too are asked who we are and what are we doing. Often our questioners are just as hard in their hearts as John’s inquisitors. But hopefully just as often our interrogators ask their questions with a real desire to know the answers. Many times they ask with a yearning in their hearts and they deserve to know the answers and it is our duty to guide them in the right way.
But no one will ask you anything like this unless they see you actually being a Christian; actually carrying out your Christian duties; actually standing out from the crowd for the sake of the Gospel.
It might be that they ask you because you have been brave enough to wear a simple cross in your buttonhole; or because you refused to take part in some minor scam at work; or because you helped someone in need when others went hurrying by on the other side.
But how to deal with these questions? How to answer without making a fool of yourself? Can I suggest that first you answer the questions for yourself. If you know why you sit here on a Sunday then it won’t be too difficult to answer other people. Take a little time out now and again to make this sort of self-examination; it will repay you no end.
Not only will it help you when others put you unexpectedly on the spot but it will give you an inner confidence and certainty which will make you feel better in yourself.
But you could also go one step further and talk to others about your faith. Ask each other about your motives and priorities in life and where Jesus fits in. Perhaps we Catholics aren’t too good at this. For many years we weren’t encouraged to do that sort of thing, we were supposed to sit back and accept what we were told by those in authority. But this sort of ecclesiastical put-down doesn’t have a place in todays world.
The Church has moved on and it now realises that such questioning is good. After all, it gives the Holy Spirit room to work. It leads to a deepening of faith and an increased trust in the teaching of the Church. But if the Church has moved on then perhaps, we too need to move on and open our mouths and share our faith a little.
How frequently you find a perfectly good Catholic family who all believe the same things and who pray to the same God and yet never exchange a word about this most important aspect of their lives. Think of the power of good that could be done, think of how they could strengthen each other just by sharing a few words with each other about their common faith! Think of the support they could give to each other, think of the doubts and uncertainties that could be so easily resolved!
Jesus stands among us, just as he stood unrecognised among those priests and levites. He stands among us as a hidden presence. Not threatening, not judging, not spying on us or interfering; but just there cool, calm, patient, content to let things take their course. He is simply a presence standing there beside us.
Be aware of his hidden presence and you will have no fear when you face questions. Just realising that he is by your side in your family conversations will surely help you to share your faith with each other and help you to find a common meaning and purpose in your life. Knowing he is close to us strengthens us in unity and bolsters our faith and gives us the courage to be fearless witnesses to his name.
Don’t forget who it really is that wants you to clam up, who wants you to feel awkward when it comes to matters of religion, who wants you to hesitate and stumble in the face of your questioners. The evil one is quite happy to exploit your reluctance. He wants to strike you dumb and fill your mind with confusion and make you shy and bashful about matters of faith.
Rather take heart from the words of Paul and let it be our prayer for each other, ‘May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’ who is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket