2nd Sunday of Advent (Dec. 4, 2011)

The early Church had a real problem with two people: John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene. I can’t get into Mary Magdalene, but if you want a really thoughtful book about her, I recommend The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bougeault.

The problem with John the Baptist was precisely that Jesus submitted himself to Baptism by John in the Jordan. In the eyes of the early Church fathers, this made Jesus subordinate to the Baptist. It also caused many problems in the early Christian community, in groups that claimed allegiance to either Jesus or John the Baptist.

Jesus did lavish much praise on John, but then came those little editorial comments by those who wrote the Gospels. For example, in Matthew 11:11, Jesus says “Amen I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11a), but an editor added “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11b). The same thing happens in John’s Gospel. Jesus said that John “was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (John5:35), but this compliment is immediately followed by, “But the testimony which I have is greater than that of John” (John 5: 36).

Elsewhere Jesus portrays the ministry of John in unmistakably positive terms: “John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and, even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him” (Matthew 21:32). Since this was also Jesus’ effect on people, an editor could not have altered it lest he alter a description of how Jesus was received. Jesus also notes similar criticisms of himself and of John: “John came neither eating nor drinking and they say ‘He had a demon.’ The son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard'” (Matthew 11:18-19).

The cumulative effect of these passages is extraordinary. Jesus speaks of John in a way similar to the early Church’s confession of Jesus. Clearly Jesus felt that John had a profound influence on His religious development. They must have spent a number of years together.

Had Jesus not insisted on the significance of John the Baptist, chances are he would have been banished from the Gospel tradition as an extreme embarrassment. Instead, we honor him as the forerunner of the Messiah.

A Happy and Blessed Advent to you!

herb yost reflections

Fr. Herb, C.S.C.

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