Like last week, John the Baptist takes centre stage in the Gospel but, before he does, we are treated to a wealth of cross-references.
The keen-of-eye will recognise the first reading from Isaiah in two separate Gospel stories. The first, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me is the scripture that Jesus reads in the synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:18), a reading that leaves his audience on the edges of their seats. The second part of the reading, of course, is what dances from Mary’s lips when she greets Elizabeth with news of her own pregnancy with Jesus.
Unusually, the psalm this week is not taken from the book of Psalms. Following the hint from Isaiah, we hear Mary’s Magnificat, her great song of praise to God. She wasn’t inspired only by Isaiah, though, she was also calling upon one of the women of the Old Testament. Many centuries before Mary, Hannah cried out in the House of the Lord, for she was childless (much like Elizabeth). The Lord heard her prayer and she gave birth to a son who, much like Elizabeth’s son, was a great prophet.
In her prayer, Hannah had promised her child to the Lord so, when he was still very young, she took him to Eli in the House of the Lord, and offered her prayer of thanksgiving: My heart exults in the Lord, in my God is my strength lifted up, my mouth derides my foes, for I rejoice in your deliverance. (1 Samuel 2)
Samuel heard the Lord calling to him as a child, and the Lord was close to him all his life. It was to Samuel that the People of God came to demand a king, and it was Samuel who anointed first Saul and then David as kings of Israel (kings of the Jews, you might say).
In his turn, the son Elizabeth bore in her old age will baptise another King of the Jews, whom God himself anoints with the Holy Spirit, to bring glad tidings to the poor and proclaim liberty to captives.
We mustn’t forget St Paul’s message to the Thessalonians, even if we do find it tucked in between all of our wonderful cross-references. It’s a radical little text, quite subversive in its own way. While we pray fervently for the God of Peace to prepare us for his coming at Christmas, Paul urges us to test everything and retain what is good. God has given us brains and demands that we use them. We must examine our lives and all of the influences on our lives and decide for ourselves (with God’s grace) what is good and retain only what is good. The next time someone tells you that Catholics are mindless drones, point them at this passage.
And so to the Gospel. We see John the Evangelist’s take on John the Baptist’s ministry. It is important that John is given his place, but it is equally important that John is put in his place. All of the evangelists do this early on in each of their Gospels. Here, John the evangelist defines the Baptist’s role. Remember: if you see a man standing and baptising another, which of them looks like the greater of the two? The simple answer is the one doing the baptising. In order to leave Christians in no doubt as to the real power relationship at play here, John the Baptist says it plainly: “I am not the Christ.” John goes on to define what his role is in salvation history, quoting the same passage from Isaiah that we saw last week: a voice crying out in the wilderness. There is one coming, he is walking among us although we do not recognise him, whom we are unworthy to untie the strap of his sandal.
Let us heed John’s message, then, and Paul’s too, such that the Lord will find us blameless upon his coming.