There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
A few weeks ago, as I was describing the painting in the hallway, the famous Madonna del Sedia, painted by Raphael, I noticed something about that painting that is not clear unless one views the painting from a distance.
Some of you observed this as I was talking about the painting. While the figure of John the Baptist is clearly visible up close, from a distance the figure of John the Baptist is only dimly visible. He is fading from vision in the light of Jesus. That is significant in the artistic representation. You see, John the Baptist represents the last great prophet of the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant fades into the background—it is a thing that has been, but it is being superseded by the light of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
That was reflected in the reading of the Gospel for that week. John the Baptist, in prison, just before being beheaded, sent messengers to Jesus to ask the question: Are you the one who is to come, or are we supposed to look for another? It is a fair question. The prophets may have looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, but they did not look forward to the Messiah who came in the earthly life of Jesus. They expected condemnation and the judgment of God to put things right. They did not expect the coming of a Messiah who came as a child, who grew into a human being full of grace and truth.
This is reflected in the somewhat easier passage of Matthew 11.2-11, At least it is much easier to understand than the poetry and imagery of Saint John’s prologue which we heard today. “Tell John what you have seen,” says the Lord Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense in me.”
The light shined in the darkness. Jesus’ message is one of grace and positivity and light. He came as the Messiah, but he was a disappointing Messiah after all—at least according to the prophetic tradition which John represented. John and the prophets failed to see the grace upon grace represented in the life of Jesus. And so, John the beloved disciple reminds us: The law was given through Moses; but something else was given by God in Jesus Christ: grace and truth are the hallmark of the abiding presence of the Messiah.
Yet, these twenty centuries later, we still live in darkness, for we have failed to embrace the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Most of us make much better followers of John the Baptist, than we do as children of light and followers of the Way of Jesus Christ. We fail abjectly at living lives of grace and mercy in the message of Jesus; we excel instead of being blinded and enslaved by the narrowness and destructiveness of our own thinking. We treat each other with the same harshness of John the Baptist, totally unbefitting behavior for the children of light, into whose hearts God has poured the Spirit of his Son. We live as though we were still in darkness, only admiring the light from afar. And we act as though the darkness will likely overcome the light at any moment, as though the light within us were not the fire of the Holy Spirit, but a feeble, flickering match struck out of doors on a wintery, blustery evening.
Yet the challenge of Jesus is that we quit following John the Baptist and begin to recognize ourselves for what God wants us to be. And what God wants us:
- to be and become are powerhouses of the grace of God.
- Reflections of his presence in the world.
- Signs that the light still shines in the darkness, and that the darkness cannot ultimately overcome the light.
The message of Christmas and Christmastide is essentially distilled into this: God who dwells in the infant Jesus also wishes to dwell fully in you. We are called not to admire the light from afar; we are called to become the light to all who are near.