St. John’s Prologue begins with sublime and poetic theology. He speaks about the Word who was in the beginning with God; about the Word’s role in Creation; about the life which comes from him, which is our light; a light which no darkness can overpower. We know all this by heart, and we know where it’s all heading: St. John is going to tell us about the Incarnation. Except that he doesn’t. At least, not at first. With something of a jolt, or a bump, he changes the subject.
A man came, sent by God. His name was... Surely we should expect to hear: “Jesus”. Because Jesus is precisely, in Johannine terms, the man sent by God (e.g. 3:17, 5:37, 6:57, 7:16, 8:16, 12:49, 17:3,25, 20:21), who was also the eternal and divine Word, or Logos. But no. Instead we read: his name was John.
We who also know St. Luke’s Gospel cannot help here calling to mind the story of how the name John, which means “God’s gracious gift” was given. It was announced by the Angel Gabriel to the Priest Zechariah, as he was ministering in the holy of holies. And Zechariah was cured of his inability to speak when, out of obedience to the Angel, he later called for a tablet and wrote: His name is John (1:60). St. Luke’s first Chapter, we also recall, is constructed by an interweaving of the figures of John the Baptist and Jesus. The same feature occurs in the first Chapter of John, in its own very different way.
John the Evangelist is quite clear about the importance of the testimony or witness of the Baptist. In his Prologue he ascribes to it a power that is both absolute and enduring. He bore witness to the light, we read, so that all might believe through him (1:7). But also: this literary device, by which our attention at first falls not on Jesus, but on the Baptist, helps underline the reality and the humility of the Incarnation. Jesus in the fourth Gospel eventually appears without particular notice, without fanfare; simply as one of the crowd. He needs to be pointed out, then observed, and listened to, and followed, and stayed with, before we can conclude, and know, with confidence, who he is. These things have been written, says John in conclusion, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name (20:31).
So it is that, very appropriately, on this third Sunday in Advent, Jesus is absent. Or it’s as if he’s present, somewhere, but not yet quite glimpsed. He is spoken about, but he does not speak. The stage is set for his appearance, but for now he remains behind the curtain, out of view.
And instead of Jesus, we have “not-Jesus”. Not the light, not the Christ, not Elijah and not the Prophet either. “Not”: four times in two verses (20-22). We have jumped from the second stanza of John’s Prologue to the prose passage with which he begins his Gospel proper. And we begin with a question. The Jews ask the Baptist: Who are you? But it’s the wrong question! Or at least, it’s addressed to the wrong person! The whole purpose of this Gospel is to ask and answer the question: Who is Jesus? Already in this first Chapter he is identified, and named. He is the eternal Word of God, and Life, and Light. He is also the Lamb of God (1:29,36), the Messiah (1:41), the Son of God (1:49), and the Son of Man (1:51). Later this Gospel will give us the seven great “I AM” sayings of Jesus. At the beginning of his Passion, three times Jesus will ask Whom do you seek? Jesus of Nazareth! they cry. I am he; he replies; or simply: I AM. To his Apostles he will say: Do you still not know me? To have seen me is to have seen the Father... I am in the Father, and the Father is in me (14:9-10). And at last after Easter the Apostle Thomas will confess on behalf of all: My Lord and my God! (20:28).
Not satisfied with the Baptist’s negations, the Jews insist. We must take back an answer. And John responds with a quotation from Isaiah Chapter 40. It’s the same text with which the Gospel of St. Mark begins, with parallels also in Matthew and Luke. I am a voice that cries in the wilderness: make a straight way for the Lord. This is John’s whole identity. He has come as a summary of all prophecy, and of the whole Old Testament: all of which is nothing other than a preparation for the coming of Christ. And now John proclaims: there stands among you, unknown to you, the one who is coming after me (1:26).
All of this we may well apply to ourselves. In the first place, we may ask: where is Jesus? For St. John the Evangelist: whether or not you see him, or know him, or acknowledge him, still he is present, close at hand, waiting. Or, as we sang at the beginning of Mass in the words of St. Paul to the Philippians: Dominus prope est! He is very near! Gaudete! Rejoice! (4:4-5)
Then, the next very important question: Who are you? That is: Who am I? Not, not, not, not. Away with all false identities, all empty pride, all status rooted in possessions or achievements! No: I am nobody and nothing. Yet, with all his other sheep, I am called by my name, given my true identity, by Christ the Good Shepherd (10:4). We have an example of that in the Easter garden. Encountering Mary Magdalene, the risen Jesus addresses her first simply as “woman”. This is not at all the same as the title he bestows on his Mother at the Cross. There the word is invested with all the sense of New Eve, New Israel, Church, Bride of the Messiah. Here it is equivalent to Miss Nobody, Miss Ordinary, Miss Lost, Miss Confused, Grieving, Broken. But then: Mary! (20:16). You who have been loved to the end (13:1). You, whose joy can never be taken away (16:22). You, who are now to stand forever in infinite dignity, re-born, re-made, united with God in perfect love.
As with Mary Magdalene, so with all of us. To use the language of this Gospel: in Jesus Christ, and with Him, I am a Son of God (1:12). Re-born in the Spirit (3:6), I now live in Him as He lives in his Father (6:56); in Him I already possess eternal life (6:54); already in Him I possess the joy of the eternal Son of God (15:11). To put that same conclusion in the language of St. Paul: Life for me now is Christ (Phil 1:21). And again: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).
This is the significance for us of the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the significance for us of Christmas, and the reason for our great celebration of that Feast, in only eight days from today.