|Juan de Juanes, c. 1560|
For today's section of St John's Gospel, I want to propose a look at chapter 1 verses 15-34, which deal with St John the Baptist's ministry. It is a set of verses where St John emphasizes that he is not the Christ, but merely one who prepares the way for him: in John we are shown how to approach Christ with the true humility that is grounded in our understanding of who Jesus is.
Perhaps for this reason, St John the Baptist was clearly an important saint for St Benedict: his life by St Gregory the Great notes that he dedicated a chapel to the great precursor, and this has since been verified by archaeological work conducted at Monte Cassino after World War II.
You can listen to the Latin here (and the Greek here). And the text of both Greek and Latin, together with the Knox translation can be found here.
Joannes testimonium perhibet de ipso, et clamat dicens: Hic erat quem dixi: Qui post me venturus est,
ante me factus est: quia prior me erat. 16 Et de plenitudine ejus nos omnes accepimus, et gratiam pro gratia: 17 quia lex per Moysen data est, gratia et veritas per Jesum Christum facta est. 18 Deum nemo vidit umquam: unigenitus Filius, qui est in sinu Patris, ipse enarravit.19 Et hoc est testimonium Joannis, quando miserunt Judæi ab Jerosolymis sacerdotes et Levitas ad eum ut interrogarent eum: Tu quis es? 20 Et confessus est, et non negavit, et confessus est: Quia non sum ego Christus. 21 Et interrogaverunt eum: Quid ergo? Elias es tu? Et dixit: Non sum. Propheta es tu? Et respondit: Non. 22 Dixerunt ergo ei: Quis es ut responsum demus his qui miserunt nos? quid dicis de teipso? 23 Ait: Ego vox clamantis in deserto: Dirigite viam Domini, sicut dixit Isaias propheta. 24 Et qui missi fuerant, erant ex pharisæis. 25 Et interrogaverunt eum, et dixerunt ei: Quid ergo baptizas, si tu non es Christus, neque Elias, neque propheta? 26 Respondit eis Joannes, dicens: Ego baptizo in aqua: medius autem vestrum stetit, quem vos nescitis. 27 Ipse est qui post me venturus est, qui ante me factus est: cujus ego non sum dignus ut solvam ejus corrigiam calceamenti. 28 Hæc in Bethania facta sunt trans Jordanem, ubi erat Joannes baptizans. 29 Altera die vidit Joannes Jesum venientem ad se, et ait: Ecce agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccatum mundi. 30 Hic est de quo dixi: Post me venit vir qui ante me factus est: quia prior me erat: 31 et ego nesciebam eum, sed ut manifestetur in Israël, propterea veni ego in aqua baptizans. 32 Et testimonium perhibuit Joannes, dicens: Quia vidi Spiritum descendentem quasi columbam de cælo, et mansit super eum. 33 Et ego nesciebam eum: sed qui misit me baptizare in aqua, ille mihi dixit: Super quem videris Spiritum descendentem, et manentem super eum, hic est qui baptizat in Spiritu Sancto. 34 Et ego vidi: et testimonium perhibui quia hic est Filius Dei.
 John beareth witness of him, and crieth out, saying: This was he of whom I spoke: He that shall come after me, is preferred before me: because he was before me.  And of his fulness we all have received, and grace for grace.  For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.  No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.  And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him, to ask him: Who art thou?  And he confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ.  And they asked him: What then? Art thou Elias? And he said: I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered: No.  They said therefore unto him: Who art thou, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?  He said: I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias.  And they that were sent, were of the Pharisees.  And they asked him, and said to him: Why then dost thou baptize, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?  John answered them, saying: I baptize with water; but there hath stood one in the midst of you, whom you know not.  The same is he that shall come after me, who is preferred before me: the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.  These things were done in Bethania, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.  The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him, and he saith: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world.  This is he, of whom I said: After me there cometh a man, who is preferred before me: because he was before me.  And I knew him not, but that he may be made manifest in Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.  And John gave testimony, saying: I saw the Spirit coming down, as a dove from heaven, and he remained upon him.  And I knew him not; but he who sent me to baptize with water, said to me: He upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.  And I saw, and I gave testimony, that this is the Son of God.
These verses emphasis both the continuity of Christ's mission, perfecting the law through grace; its sacrificial nature, with the reference to the lamb of God; and the revelation of the Trinitarian nature of God.
Why was John's testimony so important? The Catena Aurea's explanations include these:
"ORIGEN; The Jews of Jerusalem, as being of kin to the Baptist, who was of the priestly stock, send Priests and Levites to ask him who he is; that is, men considered to hold a superior rank to the rest of their order, by God's election, and coming from that favored above all cities, Jerusalem. Such is the reverential way in which they interrogate John. We read of no such proceeding towards Christ: but what the Jews did to John, John in turn does to Christ, when he asks Him, through His disciples, Are you He that should come, or look we for another?
CHRYS. Such confidence had they in John, that they were ready to believe him on his own words: witness how it is said, To ask him, Who are you?
AUG. They would not have sent, unless they had been impressed by his lofty exercise of authority, in daring to baptize.
ORIGEN; John, as it appears, saw from the question, that the Priests and Levites had doubts whether it might not be the Christ, who was baptizing; which doubts however they were afraid to profess openly, for fear of incurring the charge of credulity. He wisely determines therefore first to correct their mistake, and then to proclaim the truth.
Accordingly, he first of all shows that he is not the Christ: And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. We may add here, that at this time the people had already begun to be impressed with the idea that Christ's advent was at hand, in consequence of the interpretations which the lawyers had collected out of the sacred writings to that effect. Thus Theudas had been enabled to collect together a considerable body, on the strength of his pretending to be the Christ; and after him Judas, in the days of the taxation, had done the same. Such being the strong expectation of Christ's advent then prevalent, the Jews send to John, intending by the question, Who are you? to extract from him whether he were the Christ.
GREG. He denied directly being what he was not, but he did not deny what he was: thus, by his speaking truth, becoming a true member of Him Whose name he had not dishonestly usurped.
CHRYS. Or take this explanation: The Jews were influenced by a kind of human sympathy for John, whom they were reluctant to see made subordinate to Christ, on account of the many marks of greatness about him; his illustrious descent in the first place, he being the son of a chief priest; in the next, his hard training, and his contempt of the world. Whereas in Christ the contrary were apparent; a humble birth, for which they reproach Him; Is not this the carpenter's son? an ordinary way of living; a dress such as every one else wore.
As John then was constantly sending to Christ, they send to him, with the view of having him for their master, and thinking to induce him, by blandishments, to confess himself Christ. They do not therefore send inferior persons to him, ministers and Herodians, as they did to Christ, but Priests and Levites; and not of these an indiscriminate party, but those of Jerusalem, i.e. the more honorable ones; but they send them with this question, to ask, Who are you? not from a wish to be informed, but in order to induce him to do what I have said. John replies then to their intention, not to their interrogation: And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.
And observe the wisdom of the Evangelist: he repeats the same thing three times, to show John's virtue, and the malice and madness of the Jews. For it is the character of a devoted servant, not only to forbear taking to himself his lord's glory, but even, when numbers offer it to him, to reject it. The multitude indeed believed from ignorance that John was the Christ, but in these it was malice; and in this spirit they put the question to him, thinking, by their blandishments to bring him over to their wishes.
For unless this had been their design, when he replied, I am not the Christ, they would have said, We did not suspect this; we did not come to ask this. When caught, however, and discovered in their purpose, they proceed to another question: And they asked him, What then? Are you Elias?
AUG. For they knew that Elias was to preach Christ; the name of Christ not being unknown to any among the Jews; but they did not think that our Lord was the Christ: and yet did not altogether imagine that there was no Christ about to come. In this way, while looking forward to the future, they mistook at the present.
And he said, I am not...
GREG. But if we examine the truth accurately, that which sounds inconsistent, will be found not really so. The Angel told Zacharias concerning John, He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias. As Elias then will preach the second advent of our Lord, so John preached His first; as the former will come as the precursor of the Judge, so the latter was made the precursor of the Redeemer. John was Elias in spirit, not in person: and what our Lord affirms of the spirit, John denies of the Person: there being a kind of propriety in this; viz. that our Lord to His disciples should speak spiritually of John, and that John, in answering the carnal multitude, should speak of his body, not of his spirit...
ORIGEN; There is need of the voice crying in the wilderness, that the soul, forsaken by God, may be recalled to making straight the way of the Lord, following no more the crooked paths of the serpent. This has reference both to the contemplative life, as enlightened by truth, without mixture of falsehood, and to the practical, as following up the correct perception by the suitable action. Wherefore he adds, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.
GREG. The way of the Lord is made straight to the heart, when the word of truth is heard with humility; the way of the Lord is made straight to the heart, when the life is formed upon the precept."
In a sermon for Advent of 2011, which you can find along with a compilation of commentaries by the Fathers, Theologians and the Magisterium at the useful Bibliaclerus site, Pope Benedict XVI noted:
"...John had withdrawn into the wilderness to live a very austere life and to invite people to conversion, also by the example of his life. He conferred on them a baptism of water, a single rite of penance which distinguished it from the many rites of external purification of the sects of that time.
So who was this man? Who was John the Baptist? The response he himself gave is surprisingly humble. He was not the Messiah, he was not the light. He was neither Elijah come back to the earth nor the great prophet awaited. He was the Forerunner, a simple witness, totally subordinate to the One he proclaimed; a voice in the wilderness, as in our day too, in the wilderness of the great cities of this world, of the great absence of God, we need voices that simply announce to us “God exists. He is always near, even if he seems absent”.
John the Baptist was a voice in the wilderness and a witness to the light; and this moves our hearts, for in this world where there are so many shadows, so much darkness, we are all called to be witnesses of light...and we can only be this if we carry the light within us, if we are not only certain that the light exists, but also that we have seen a ray of light.
In the Church, in God’s word, in the celebration of the sacraments, in the Sacrament of Confession with the forgiveness that we receive, in the celebration of the Blessed Eucharist where the Lord gives himself into our hands and hearts, we touch the light and receive this mission: to bear witness today that there is light, and to carry the light in our time."
You can find notes on the next section of St John's Gospel, dealing with the calling of the disciples, here.