08 December 2011

'A witness to speak for the light'. Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Advent Year B

Preaching of St John the Baptist, Domenico Ghirlandaio, painted 1486-90

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Gospel John 1:6-8, 19-28 (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
as a witness to speak for the light,
so that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light,
only a witness to speak for the light.

This is how John appeared as a witness. When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?' he not only declared, but he declared quite openly, 'I am not the Christ'. 'Well then,' they asked 'are you Elijah?' 'I am not' he said. 'Are you the Prophet?' He answered, 'No'. So they said to him, 'Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?' So John said, 'I am, as Isaiah prophesied:

a voice that cries in the wilderness:
Make a straight way for the Lord'.

Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, 'Why are you baptising if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?' John replied, 'I baptise with water; but there stands among you - unknown to you - the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap'. This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.


An Soiscéal Eoin 1:6-8, 19-28 (Gaeilge, Irish)

Bhí fear a tháinig ina theachtaire ó Dhia,
agus Eoin a ba ainm dó.
Tháinig sé ag déanamh fianaise
chun fianaise a thabhairt i dtaobh an tsolais
chun go gcreidfeadh cách tríd.
Níorbh é féin an solas
ach tháinig ag tabhairt fianaise i dtaobh an tsolais.

Is í seo an fhianaise a thug Eoin nuair a chuir na Giúdaigh sagairt agus Léivítigh ó Iarúsailéim chuige á fhiafraí de: “Cé hé thusa?” D’admhaigh sé agus níor shéan agus d’admhaigh sé: “Ní hé an Críost mé.” D’fhiafraigh siad de: “Cad eile, más ea? An tú Éilias?” “Ní mé,” ar seisean. “An tú an fáidh?” Agus d’fhreagair: “Ní mé.” Dúirt siad leis mar sin: “Cé hé thú? – chun go mbeadh freagra againn dóibh seo a chuir chugat sinn. Cad tá le rá agat mar gheall ort féin?” Dúirt sé: “Is glór duine mé ag éamh san fhásach: ‘Déanaigí díreach bóthar an Tiarna,’ mar a dúirt Íseáia fáidh.” Ó na Fairisínigh a ba ea na teachtairí, agus chuir siad ceist air: “Cén fáth a mbíonn tú ag baisteadh más ea,” ar siad, “mura thú an Críost, nó Éilias, nó an fáidh?”

Thug Eoin freagra orthu: “Déanaim féin baisteadh le huisce,” ar seisean, “ach tá duine in bhur measc nach aithnid daoibh, an té atá ag teacht i mo dhiaidh, nach fiú mé iall a chuarán a scaoileadh.” I mBeatáine, taobh thall den Iordáin, a tharla an méid sin mar a raibh Eoin ag déanamh baiste.

We were a group of nearly 70 boys in our last year of secondary school, 17 and 18 years of age. The A and B sections had the same set of teachers and Brother Mícheál S. Ó Flaitile, a member of the Irish Christian Brothers, now known as the Congregation of Christian Brothers, used to take the two sections together for religions class each day before lunch. At the time he was probably around 60 years of age. Our nickname for him was ‘Pancho’ because he bore a certain resemblance to a chubby cartoon character of that name. We all revered him, though that didn’t prevent us from playing the occasional trick on him.

One particular day is seared in my memory. ‘Pancho’ apologized to the two sections because the day before he had scolded a member of the B section in front of us all and later discovered that the student hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t remembered the scolding from the day before nor the alleged misdemeanor, which was trivial anyway. I doubt if any of my classmates had remembered it either. But for ‘Pancho’ it was a matter of honour and justice to correct his mistake and to say to us, and especially to the student he had wrongly judged, that he was sorry.

Years later, when he was already in his 80s, I reminded Br Ó Flaitile of the incident. He said he didn’t remember it – but he smiled.

I have taught from time to time at various levels during my 44 years as a priest and the example of ‘Pancho’ that day has stayed with me and guided me on many an occasion.

Even as a student I saw ‘Pancho’ as a Christ-like person. He taught us about Jesus in our religions classes but I remember very little, if anything, of what he said. But I remember his example, not only on the occasion he apologized to us, but in everything I saw in him over the years. I first came to know him when I was still in elementary school and he was in charge of a student organization I joined. It was only in my last two years in secondary school that I had him as a teacher.

In Ghirlandaio’s painting above we see Jesus very clearly in the background. But the people are focused on St John the Baptist. Jesus is standing higher than his cousin. This is the painter’s way of illustrating the words of the Baptist in today’s gospel: but there stands among you - unknown to you - the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.

None of us is fit to undo the sandal-strap of Jesus. But each of us is called to be, not the light, but a witness to speak for the light who is Jesus through the life we lead. ‘Pancho’ was such a witness to me.

Gisella is a young Indonesian singer (as far as I can make out from online research). In this recording of the old European Advent hymn, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, or 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, she is accomapnied by a drummer from Senegal in west Africa. She sings the first verse and refrain in the original Latin and then the same verse and refrai, with another, in the 1851 English translation by John Mason Neale.
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

Veni, veni Emmanuel;
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.


Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Request for prayers

I am posting this on the afternoon of 8 December, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and will be going on retreat later today until the morning of 14 December. May I ask your prayers for myself and I will be praying for you.

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