At the end of almost every Mass, we read the first fourteen verses of Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….” And we hear that: “there was a man, one sent from God, whose name was John.” Just to be sure we avoid confusion here, the writer of the Gospel is not talking about himself, but rather about the other John whom we know as Saint John the Baptist. It was John the Baptist who “was not himself the Light, but who came to bear witness to the Light.” The Gospel we just read is the continuation of that familiar “last Gospel,” for as we rapidly approach Christmas it becomes urgent that we know something of how and why “the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
John’s humility is admirable. The delegation that approached him at Bethany beyond the Jordan came expecting to find someone of first rate importance. He might have passed himself as some sort of local celebrity if he had been more self important. The Jewish people had been expecting a Messias for centuries, and John seemed to be stirring up enough of a fuss with the people to whom he was preaching and baptizing. Perhaps John was the one they expected -- the one who would rally the people of Israel together, throw out the Roman occupational forces, and restore the glorious kingdom of Israel as it had been in the days of King David and King Solomon. The priests and the levites of the Temple, you see, expected a messias with a sword in his hand -- one who would solve all of their worldly problems and restore their national pride.
But John is humble and forthright with them. He is not the Messias, -- who won’t be a war-lord anyway -- but he has been sent to introduce the Redeemer of spiritual Israel. He quotes the prophet Isaias to them, one with whom they would have all been familiar: “I am the voice of one crying in the desert: Make straight the way of the Lord.” John has been baptizing with water, a mere symbol of repentance and purification -- but one so holy that John feels unworthy to tie his shoes is coming – and “He will baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”[i] John is saying, in essence, that his baptism has been no more than a reflection of the Baptism soon to be instituted by the Christ of the Lord.
This, by the way, is true of all the Sacraments. They are not mere symbols, but instead they are the reality that is symbolized. The token washing of Baptism suggests purification, but the Sacramental reality not only purifies the soul from every stain of sin, but it also elevates the soul through grace to partake of the divine life of God. In a similar manner, when we confess our sins, we appear to be talking with a mere man, confessing our sins to one who may be no more holy than we are -- but the reality is that our sins are being forgiven by God Himself, and that we are again raised up by grace. We can say much the same for each of the other five sacraments.
The very last few words of the “last Gospel” are significant in this connection. They speak of “the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. These two things are the significant difference between Christianity and Judaism; indeed between Christianity and any other form of religion. There are a few verses omitted between the end of the “last Gospel” and the beginning of what we just read this morning. Let me read them:
Simply stated, grace raises us up from the lowliness of our humanity and brings us into contact with God’s divinity. As we hear at the offertory of the Mass: “We become partakers of His divinity who humbled Himself to become partaker of our humanity.” Understand, please, that no amount of effort on our part could bring this about were it not willed by God Himself. No amount of fasting or abstinence, no penance, no amount of giving to he poor, no amount of prayer, meditation, or enlightened thought could ever raise anyone to level of divine grace. Without the grace of the Sacraments the soul can never function at the level of God’s divine nature. And that grace comes to us only through Jesus Christ, who baptizes us, indeed, with water and the Holy Ghost, and with the fire of grace.
Note well that the Gospel refers to two things which come through Jesus Christ: beside grace, there is also truth. This is a recurring theme. Jesus told the Samaritan Woman: “The hour … is here when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” – not just in Jerusalem but on all of the altars throughout the world wherever holy Mass is offered.[iii] Truth, apparently, is very much like grace, and of similar importance: “If you abide in My word you shall be My disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”[iv] When He speaks of the Holy Ghost, our Lord refers to Him as “the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father.”[v] Our Lord even identifies Himself as Truth: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”[vi]
In today’s world, and even in today’s Catholicism, our Lord’s emphasis on truth is downplayed, more so even than His emphasis on grace. Rarely do modern people anymore speak of the truth. More often they speak of “opinion,” “point of view,” or “feeling.” And the problem for many is not just the difficulty in finding out the truth -- (and, oftentimes, it is difficult to discover the truth about one thing or another) -- the problem for many is that they simply do not believe that there is an objective truth, so to speak, “out there” in the mind of God. They don’t believe in objective truth anymore than they believe in supernatural grace, because they don’t believe in Jesus Christ.
Hopefully, belief in Christ, and the consequent reception of grace and truth, is not a problem for any of us here. But let me suggest a few things to consider as this Advent season draws to a close:
First, always try to imitate the humility of John the Baptist; always recognize that any and everything that we have that makes us good is not of our own making, but comes from God -- the humble man knows that he does best when he simply cooperates with the gifts God has given him.
Draw strength for your spiritual life from the knowledge that our God has entered our world, and with Him have come grace and truth; grace to raise us up, and truth to make us free. Grace to ennoble our human nature. Truth to make us Christ like
And finally, as you meditate on these things, say a prayer that God will reach out and enlighten the souls who don’t know Him. “No one has at any time seen God.” Pray that in this season of Advent, Christ will “the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father,” will reveal Him to many who do not know Him -- and will reintroduce Him to those who have grown cold and have forgotten Him.
“His fullness we have all received, grace for grace … grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”