Third Sunday of Advent, Sermon #2, by Bishop Geremia Bonomelli, D.D.

At that time: The Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and levites to John 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 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 thon 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. – John 1:19-28

My friends, the Gospel which you have just heard read is that which the Church selects for the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent.

Before entering upon an explanation of the Gospel text, which is plain and simple, it may be interesting to know the reason why the Great Council of Jerusalem sent this solemn embassy to John. In those days there was a general expectation of the coming of the Messias among the Hebrew people, and in consequence also, though by no means so general, among other nations. The ancient traditions, always vivid throughout Israel, and still more explicitly, the clear predictions of the prophets, pointed out that the time had come when the Saviour of the world might be expected to appear among men. There are undoubted proofs in the Gospel, which it is not necessary to quote here, that this expectation was common in Israel; and the celebrated historians Tacitus and Suetonius bear witness that, precisely at the time of Christ, the coming of some great personage was expected among the Gentiles. It is not a matter of surprise, then, that when John Baptist came up out of the desert and appeared on the banks of the Jordan, preaching penance, not only the people, but their leaders also, should have seriously entertained the thought that he was the expected Messias. The miraculous birth of John, his sojourn in the desert, his austere life, his fearless speech to all, even to those in power, so like that of Elias, the whole life and history of the man, naturally stirred the popular imagination, and in consequence drew upon him the attention of the leading men of the synagogue. Many, and especially those who had gone out to the Jordan, and had seen him and heard his glowing words, asked themselves: “May not John be the very Messias whom we expect?” John’s reputation in a little while grew enormously, and the belief that he was really the Messias spread so generally that the chiefs of the synagogue, either to encourage the belief of the multitude, or to clear up the doubt and set right the judgment of the people, resolved to send a solemn embassy to John and thus force him to say who he was. And here begins the Gospel narrative of Saint John which I am to explain, and I trust you will give me your attention.

“At that time the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and levites to John to ask him: Who art thou?” This embassy, composed of priests and levites, must have been a large one and invested with authority. It is only natural to suppose that a large number accompanied this embassy, because the name of John was now celebrated and there was the keenest desire in all to hear from him an explicit answer that would set their doubts at rest. To the Jewish people the Messias meant everything, because in Him were centered all the predictions of the prophets, in Him were accomplished the rites, the sacrifices, the Law of Moses, and all the longings of their fathers. Fancy, then, how great was the desire of the people to hear John’s answer.

It is always thus, my friends. Whenever an event takes place that deeply touches religious sentiment, no matter when or where, the people are roused and it would seem as if a breath from heaven is passing over them. We have instances of this in our day, even though this is said, and with some truth, to be an age of religious indifference. Let the report go abroad that in a certain place some extraordinary manifestation has occurred, the eyes in an image or statue have moved, or shed tears, and forthwith the people are agitated and hurry from all sides to see and hear and satisfy themselves of the fact; and among the throng of the devout, you will see many who are not religiously inclined and not even believers; they, too, want to see and hear, for they are under the spell of the popular movement. And why is this? Because a real and total religious indifference does not exist, and because deep down in human nature the religious sentiment ever abides as indestructible as the reason itself. Let free-thinkers reflect on it, and be persuaded that it is vain and foolish to try to destroy the religious sentiment. They may lead it astray, they may change it into superstition, but annihilate it they never can; and if they examine themselves well, they will find that they still believe, and more it may be, than they could wish. And now let us go back to the Gospel.

The messengers said to John: “Who art thou?” It is likely that the messengers addressed to John a formal and somewhat lengthy discourse politely stating to him that they wished to know who he was. The Evangelist, according to his custom, reduces the question to what is absolutely necessary and makes the messengers say briefly: “Who art thou?” And the Evangelist adds: “John confessed and he did not deny; and he confessed, I am not the Christ.” How plain and straightforward his language! He confessed, that is, he said what he should say, and he did not gainsay the truth. Johif knew that the people, and possibly the messengers themselves, were disposed to believe that he was the Messias, and therefore to remove all doubt he protested: “I am not the Christ.”

What a wonderful man the Precursor was! He could have kept silence, or dissimulated, or given an indirect answer, and let them believe that he was the Messias, and thus have shared at least in a measure the supreme honor due to Him. Had he been a vain or a weak man, fond of praise and honor, and very few are not, he would have yielded to this strong temptation; but the Baptist did not hesitate an instant, and before they had time to ask him in explicit terms if he were the Christ, he protested in the presence of all, saying: “No, I am not the Messias, I am not the Christ.” We must admire such exalted virtue, guard ourselves against the insidious breath of flattery, and imitate the Precursor in refusing to be praised, when praise was not due, and in loving truth and only truth.

The messengers were astonished at so peremptory a reply and they again interrogated him, saying: “Art thou Elias?” The Hebrews, knowing that Elias was to come upon the earth and go before the Lord, and confounding the first with the second coming of Jesus Christ, put to John this question: “Art thou Elias?” And John again replied and so clearly as to remove all doubt: “I am not.”

It is true that Jesus Christ, speaking of John, as is recorded in Saint Matthew, says that he is Elias: “He is Elias.” But He only meant by these words that John went before Him as Elias would later, at His second coming, and that John possessed the virtues and the spirit of Elias.

As John had thus far only denied that he was either the Christ or Elias the messengers insisted on having an explicit answer as to who he was. They said to him: “Art thou the Prophet?” It is to be noted here that the messengers did not ask him if he were a prophet, but if he were the Prophet, designating by the article the a determinate prophet known and expected by the people. Who could this prophet be? Saint Justin Martyr relates that there was a belief among the Hebrew people that the Messias on first coming would for a time remain concealed and that He would be made known by a prophet. Hence the messengers asked John if he were this prophet. This belief was likely a creation of the popular imagination, or a distorted version of the account of the Precursor. As might be anticipated, John replied concisely: “No.” Our Lord teaches us in the Gospel that the language of His followers should be “Yea, yea; Nay, nay.” Subterfuges, reticences, half-truths, so co mm on in the world, are wholly opposed to the honesty and frankness which should be characteristic of every Christian. John Baptist in his clear and fearless replies anticipated the teaching of Jesus Christ. My friends, always love truth, shun double-tongued practice and lying, and keep in mind the words of the Holy Ghost, that a lying tongue kills the soul.

Then the messengers pressed John still more closely, saying to him: “Who art thou, that we may give an account to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?” Forced to say who he was, he replied: “1 am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the Prophet Isaias.” Which means: “I am he who was foretold by Isaias, who goes before the Lord; I must prepare the people to receive Him, and I must form His first disciples.”

It was the office of John to prepare the people for the coming of Christ and to bring disciples to Him. This is also the office of the pastor and of every priest. Like John he must teach the people, preach penance to them, withdraw them from their evil ways and bring them to Jesus. And if his office is to teach you, to correct you and to lead you to Jesus, assuredly your duty is to listen to him, and to suffer yourselves to be corrected and brought to Jesus Christ. His duty is bound up inseparably with yours.

“And they that were sent,” says the Evangelist, “were of the Pharisees.” That is, they were priests and levites belonging to the sect of the Pharisees, and who these Pharisees were I shall have a more favorable occasion to say in another place.

The replies of John did not satisfy the messengers, who were proud men and captious and true Pharisees, and, arrogantly assuming a certain authority over the Baptist, they said: “Why dost thou baptize, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the Prophet?” Which was as much as to say: “You have no right to baptize or to use this ceremony introduced by yourself.” You know, my friends, John baptized in the Jordan all who came asking baptism. It was a new ceremony, as I think, introduced by John himself. The men went down into the river and John sprinkled water over them. It was a sort of confession of sin, an avowal that they needed cleansing; it was a cry for pardon of their transgressions, which, as appears from the Gospel, some publicly confessed. It is clear that the baptism of John was quite different from that of Jesus, of which it was a foreshadowing.

To this arrogant question John meekly made answer: “I baptize with water, but there hath stood one in the midst of you, whom you know not.” He said substantially: “My baptism is a trifling matter; it is only pouring a little water on the head of him who wills it; it has no virtue to cancel sin, because only the power of the Holy Ghost can cancel sin, and this it has not. My baptism is only of water, a simple rite; it implies an avowal of sin on the part of the recipient, it is an act of humility, as when one puts ashes on his head; but there is in your midst another who baptizes with water and the Holy Ghost, and my baptism is but a figure of His. Who will administer this baptism? He whose coming I announce to you, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.”

And here John takes occasion to make known the Messias and to rebuke those who have not yet recognized Him. He who baptizes and in baptizing takes away sin is already come; He is in your midst and you know Him not. Had you sought Him you surely would have found Him, for God always makes known the truth to him who seeks it in simplicity and love. To fulfill his office of precursor and to awake in the members of the embassy a desire to seek the Messias, John goes on speaking of Him. You would know, he says, who is the Messias, the Christ, whom you expect and who is in your midst? “The same is He that shall come after me,” that is, “He is born after me,” and we know from the Gospel that Jesus Christ was born six months after John. “As man He was born six months after me; but, as you know, He is preferred before me, He is greater than I, and He is above me.” In this sentence John clearly states that Jesus was before He became man, that is, He was God. He is so exalted, the Precursor goes on, and such is the reverence due Him that “I am not worthy to loose the latchet of His shoe.” To loose the latchet of a master’s shoe was the duty of slaves. Such was the love of truth and such the instinct of humility in this wonderful man.

It might seem to us that, since these messengers had come on purpose from Jerusalem to find out if John were the Messias or not, and learning from his own lips that he was not the Messias, that the Messias was come and was in their midst, though unknown, they would at once say to John: “Pray tell us, since you know Him, where He is, that we may go straight away and pay Him the homage due Him.” It was the most natural thing to do if the motive were even only a rude curiosity. But they did nothing of the sort; so indifferent were they that they did not make a single inquiry which would lead them to know Him for whom the whole nation was yearning. It is a blindness which is an inexplicable mystery and of which we have daily instances under our very eyes. How many among us live forgetful of God, of Jesus Christ, and of their soul? They do not even care to know whether or not God exists, or whether Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world. The Church, like John Baptist before her, cries out ceaselessly: “Do penance; Jesus Christ is in your very midst; He awaits you; He wishes to pardon you; go to Him, who is truth and life, to Him who takes away the sins of the world.” And what do many, even Christians, do? They turn a deaf ear to the call, they go on in their indifference and sin, in their debaucheries and scandals. Their blindness is even more inexplicable than that of the Jews, because then Jesus Christ had not manifested Himself, nor had He wrought any of the miracles which He afterward wrought and which He continues to work in the Church, May God preserve us always from falling into so great and so miserable a blindness.

“These things,” concludes the Evangelist, “were done in Bethania, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” This Bethania was not the village where Lazarus and Mary Magdalen and Martha dwelt, but another, on the left bank of the Jordan, where the Precursor sojourned, it may be because there water was convenient wherewith to baptize the crowds which were drawn to him.

My friends, let us always keep before our minds the example of John Baptist, of his sincerity and frankness, his humility and zeal, and let us sincerely endeavor to imitate him and his virtues.