Soon after he baptized him in the river Jordan, John the Baptist (JB) made claims about Jesus. (John 1:29-34) In order to understand the potential impact of these claims, it is necessary to know something about the development of the Gospels. The Gospel for today’s reading is from John, the last of the Gospels to be written. This was the time the early Christian community was coalescing, and the expressions of the earlier Gospels took on certain theological meaning.
The first stage of development was the Event. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had multiple witnesses. People from miles around saw Jesus perform miracles, make statements, and according to their cultural understandings, inerpreted them accordingly.
The second stage of development was the Oral Expression of those witnessed events. Jesus was such a charismatic figure and said many interesting things. People wanted to share Jesus’ words and deeds, so they spoke about them in small groups gatherings. Gradually, a pattern began to develop in which certain phrases and gestures apparently had more significance than others. Consequently, formulations began to take shape.
The third stage of development was the Written Expression of what had been spoken and said by Jesus. This had to have consistency, and could begin to give some stability to the content. Eventually, the witnesses began to die out, so some certainty about the words and deeds of Jesus needed specific reference points.
The fourth stage of development was the Editing stage. The growing Christian community, as a whole, needed to decide what writings represented Jesus accurately and not imaginatively. And so they chose those writings that best expressed their understanding of Jesus. This also became known as the canonization stage, that is, the stage that made the Gospels “official.”
What does this all mean in terms of the Gospel reading for today? There appear to be at least three dominant themes that can speak to us personally. For example: Lamb of God, the active presence of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus as the chosen one (“Messiah” in Hebrew means “the chosen one”.)
LAMB OF GOD: Here we can see a reference to the Old Testament story of the beginning of the salvation account of the Exodus (Exodus 12). Just before the final plague, the slaughter of the first born, the Israelites are told to place the blood of the lamb across the doorposts so that the angel of death will “pass over” their houses, and kill the firstborn of the Egptians, including the son of the Pharaoh. The blood of the lamb at this moment was an event of salvation. When we go to Mass, just before reception of the Eucharist, the priest publicly displays the consecrated host and mentions the Lamb of God. A reminder of the salvific gesture in the Book of Exodus.
ACTIVITY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT: I suspect that it is safe to say the real translation of the word “spirit of God” [ruah yhwh] is “the creative power of God.” So when we read of the creation of the world, the biblical text says “The earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [ruah] from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2) In the Book of Judges there is another example. “But the “spirit [ruah] of the Lord took possession of Gideon…” giving him power to act like a Judge. And then there is the account of the Visitation. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is to be the mother of Jesus. Gabriel then mentions to a puzzled Mary, “…the Holy Spirit [Pneuma hagion] will come upon you….” (Luke 1:35) And then we have the baptism of Jesus where the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove. Jesus’ divinity expressed.
The Spirit of God is active in the creation of the world, in empowering some Judges, in impregnating Mary, and present at Jesus’ baptism. It is the presence of the Spirit of God at our Baptism that gives us courage and strength to confront challenges to our faith.
JESUS, THE CHOSEN ONE: THE “MESSIAH”: This was one of the constant themes in the Gospels. More than once, the reality of Jesus’ divinity surfaces. In fact, the final words in today’s Gospel have John the Baptist (JB) saying, “Now, I have seen and testified the he is the Son of God.”
And so, when John the Baptist (JB) refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God, referring to the OT Exodus account, asserts that the Holy Spirit is active in Jesus’ ministry, and expresses that Jesus is the Son of God, then I think that we can virtuallysay that JB was correct in his assumptions and meant what he said. Our own Baptism make the above not only possible for us, but probable as well.