For Reflection: This week Benjamin reflects on the witness of John the Baptist
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.
A few years ago, whilst on holiday in Italy we visited the Uffizi gallery in Florence. This former palace of the ruling Medici family now houses the glories of the Renaissance art which they patronised and collected. Like many of the great museums and galleries of the world you now have to book a timed ticket for entry. And so, joining the throngs we weaved our way along the snaking queue which began outside and then seemed move inexorably through all the galleries one by one.
It might have been the rather slow forced-march feel to this experience or the sheer volume of the art we could see and view, but quickly I stopped being really able to appreciate the art for what it was. Instead, I started to try to spot the recurring patterns in the often-stylised images of Renaissance art.
“Would a pious Virgin Mary be reading or sowing or sweeping in yet another depiction of the annunciation?”…“What incongruous mother-child configuration would we find in the latest Madonna and Child”
And my favourite…“What would the baby John the Baptist be wearing in the images of his in fact visits to the Virgin and Child?”
In some we would be naked, in others in a modest loin cloth, but in my favourite, he would be wearing an infant sized hairshirt, as if his mother Elizabeth had been dressing from birth in the wilderness attire of his adulthood.
I became slightly obsessed with these – for me – mildly comic images of John the Baptist and would make a point of looking for them as we worked our way through the galleries. But as I did this I also started to notice another thing. In these highly stylised and symbolic images John the Baptist – whether wild-eyed adult or reluctantly dressed infant – would always be pointing away from himself and towards Jesus.
What these images of John the Baptist showed to their original and religiously literate audiences was that fact about John the Baptist which our Gospel reading encourages us to see today. That John – in his ministry and life – pointed away from himself and towards Jesus.
Our Gospel reading rather filets out from the first chapter of John’s Gospel this particular characteristic of John the Baptist’s ministry. The first part, drawn from the prologue to the Gospel which we will hear again at Christmas tells us who John is in God’s cosmic plan.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John…he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
In this cosmic plan, John was created not for his own ends, but to draw others towards Jesus, to the light that is coming into the world.
The Gospel reading then changes tack and jumps forward a few verses to an account of John’s ministry and his inquisition by the religious authorities. In this scene we encounter a John who is living out fully that cosmic plan we found only a few verses earlier. Again and again they ask John who he is. Are you the Messiah, are you the prophet, are you Elijah reborn. But John rebuffs these questions focused on who he is. Instead he turns his answers away from himself and points them towards Jesus.
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.
Everything we hear of John and from John does not look to him. To what he is doing, or bringing about through his dramatic and prophetic ministry. Nothing he does means anything unless it points towards who Jesus truly is. John’s is a truly self-less life. As he says of himself later in John’s gospel:
He must increase, but I must decrease.
In our modern world, so focused on what I want and what I need there is something startingly honest and refreshing about John’s recognition that his worth does not come from what he thinks about himself, or what others think about him, but what his life does to show others who Jesus truly is.
It would be easy for me to turn this reflection into a long and pious diatribe about the failings of modern capitalist society. Of the inherent selfishness of the world around us and that the world would be a better place if we thought more less about ourselves and more about others.
The world around us replete with examples of lives lived and ruined in this way – one for instance has only just over a month living in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington for instance.
But living through this year, and discovering in a small way what it is to ask people to attend Church or Weddings or Funerals within with our restrictions, it is impossible not also to have seen another view.
We have been asked to live in an extraordinary way this year to try to protect one another from the Covid-19 virus. We have been asked to do things which would have been unimaginable even at the beginning of this year. We have done that in some ways to protect ourselves. But the reality of our physical distancing and mask-wearing regimes is that their scientific basis is less about what protect me from you, and more about protect you from me. There is – in the act of physical distancing and mask wearing an act of self-lessness. That to do it is to think more about other people than ourselves.
So as we move through what we pray are the latter stages of this virus, and look to the world beyond we might want to look to our face-masks as we reflect on John the Baptist today. That as we have discovered through this most challenging of years life in all its fullness comes – as John knew – in a life that looks way from our own self and our own needs and towards others and God’s purposes for the world.
Perhaps in a few centuries time a weary holiday maker will be looking at the art of the early twenty-first century and smirking at the odd sight of all these people in masks standing a strangely long way away from each other. But as they do so perhaps, they will see past the symbolism and to the truth that it represents. That in those masks and distances are lives lived for others not for ourselves, and through that see a glimpse of the kingdom that John the Baptist points us towards.