By Fr. Francis Afu
Today’s Gospel reading from John 1:6-8, 19-28 seems to be a paraphrase of last Sunday’s Gospel. We find in both Gospel readings similar themes: the wilderness, John’s refusal to be what the people expect him to be, and John’s effort to point the people to the One who is coming after him. Today, John is saying the One coming after him is already among the people, standing in their midst, and in our midst. This announcement is a cause for rejoicing. It is Good News. And the Jewish people can hear in John the fulfilment of God’s promise. God is at work. But the Gospel reading did not just announce the Good News. It tells us in a narrative form how we are to accept this news of great joy and allow it to transform our lives. The Gospel begins with an introduction to John the Baptist – ‘A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light.
He was not the light….’ Why is John, the author of the Gospel emphasising that John the Baptist was only a witness for the light? He is differentiating John the Baptist’s experience of the light from the light experienced. The author is more or less saying our focus should not be solely on John the Baptist’s experience. For experiences are most times relative to the one who has had them. We cannot say that every child in the womb who encounters the presence of Christ will leap like John the Baptist did. If we do, we may end up as fundamentalists, ideologically rigid and living with a kind of falsehood that beclouds our vision of Christ and the reality of His saving work. The Gospel’s author wants us to focus on Christ, the Light which John the Baptist had experienced. It was the Light of Christ that helped John the Baptist to discern in the wilderness, that space where we wrestle with God, who he truly was. It is the Light of Christ that helped John the Baptist to reject the false expectations the people had of him, and to declare boldly – he was not the Christ. He was not Elijah
. He was not the prophet. By focusing on Christ, and allowing His Light to reveal him to himself, John the Baptist became the freest man that ever lived. He was free of the idol of the false self that steals our joy and makes it almost impossible for us to rejoice in God. We cannot rejoice when we are living a lie, when we are pretending to be who we are not. We cannot rejoice when we are proud, living with what Pope Francis calls a hyperinflated self. A self that thinks he or she is the centre of the world and others do not matter or do not deserve to exist except oneself. We cannot rejoice when we live as Hugo Grotius said, ‘As if God did not exist.’ We can only rejoice when we are free of our idols of falsehood. In Nigeria this means we have to let go of Bigmanism. In the West, we have to part ways with the Big Me and Selfism. The Blessed Virgin Mary had no place for idols.
She did not live dwelling solely on her experience of God, but consistently turned her gaze towards God. Her great hymn, the Magnificat tells the story of truth, humility, freedom, and joy. ‘My soul glorifies the Lord,’ she said, ‘my spirit rejoices in God, my saviour.’ Notice how Mary consistently shifted her focus away from herself even as she told the story of her experience of God. And as Richard Rohr exhorts, her experience was not about her. It was about God. And she was a witness to God. In John the Baptist and Mary, we find answers to how we can rejoice. But it is difficult and somewhat insensitive to talk about rejoicing, when we live in times that are plagued with real hardship. The divide between the rich and the poor is getting wider. And there is great fear of another economic recession. Like the Israelites, how can we ever sing the Lord’s song or rejoice when we are in a foreign land, our current reality? Perhaps the wise words of Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est may be of help.
‘Often the real cause of suffering is the absence of God.’ Note Benedict XVI made this statement in the context of his teaching on social justice. He believes our choice to live as if God does not exist may be contributing to the way we spend our resources and treat others. According Henry Wansbrough OSB, ‘We can easily become so wrapped up in our own troubles and worries that we fail to recognise the one figure (Christ) who can bring us the solution.’ But when we rejoice, that is take delight in what God has done and is doing, we become present to God. We find Him who has already found us. We begin to change, reorder our priorities and make room for God’s Kingdom to come.