The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying,”… one mightier than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Lk 3:15-16)
Just a few weeks ago we wrote in this column that the essence of the Advent season is “expectation”. The Church (that is, the Holy Spirit) instructs us today that the substance of the Christmas season is also one of glorious anticipation.
Christmas concludes with the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, and as our quotation above from today’s gospel reading testifies (although we depart the liturgical Christmas season for another “ordinary time”) our religious practice is meant to be anything but ordinary. It is meant to be full of expectation.
Sunday is always focused on Jesus Christ, especially this Sunday. However, in order to sharpen this focus, the Church presents us today with St. John the Baptist. It was on John that the expectation of the Judean people of the 1st century A.D was initially focused in their hope of salvation. This is not the first expectation surrounding the person of John. At the birth and naming of John, Luke tells us in his first gospel chapter that, “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him” (Lk 1:66). Remember that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cousin Elizabeth conceived John in her old age and that John’s father Zechariah had an angelic vision whence he was struck mute, and that he regained his speech only at the naming of John. Even Jesus calls John the Baptist the greatest man born of woman (Lk 7:28) meaning that his natural capacity and constitution must have been great indeed! In this way he was easily a magnet to the people. In the Spirit, he was certainly a magnet for God.
For this Sunday’s feast we place on our bulletin cover a work by the late Italian Baroque painter, Luca Giordano, entitled St. John the Baptist Preaching (1695). Giordano painted this work later in life during his residency in Spain. However, his early training was completed by a Spaniard residing in Italy – Jusepe de Ribera. This work is thoroughly Baroque. John is presented in strong physical stature and his listeners are filled with expectation as to what he will say and do. (Even the small dog has a posture of excitement). But here we see John refocusing the crowd’s expectation by pointing upward indicating that there is another coming after him; someone who comes from heaven bearing the full Godhead. John’s testimony is depicted solidly as he stands on God shown as a “rock of refuge” (Ps 18:2 & 71:3).
John tells his followers, “One mightier than me is coming”. In fact, this mightier one had arrived many years earlier in a manger in Bethlehem. He did as John had foretold and sent His Holy Spirit to enliven the faithful with grace. Jesus will come one last time, as we say in our creed, “in glory to judge the living and the dead”. If we approach His coming with expectation and joy, rather than with apathy or dread, then we show ourselves to be true disciples of hope in God.
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services