Saturday, January 9, 2010

He Must Increase, I Must Decrease.

Christmas Weekday
Reading I              1 John 5:14-21
We have this confidence in him
that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask,
we know that what we have asked him for is ours.
If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly,
he should pray to God and he will give him life.
This is only for those whose sin is not deadly.
There is such a thing as deadly sin,
about which I do not say that you should pray.
All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.
We know that anyone begotten by God does not sin;
but the one begotten by God he protects,
and the Evil One cannot touch him.
We know that we belong to God,
and the whole world is under the power of the Evil One.
We also know that the Son of God has come
and has given us discernment to know the one who is true.
And we are in the one who is true,
in his Son Jesus Christ.
He is the true God and eternal life.
Children, be on your guard against idols.


Today’s First Reading continues John’s teaching on what it means to be children of God. As children of the eternal Father, we have confidence in prayer because of our intimate relationship with him. We know that whatever we ask, if it is according to his will, he will grant it. We understand that, if what we ask for will be harmful to our relationship with the Father, or with our brothers and sisters, he will not grant it. On the other hand, it is not as easy to understand that God sometimes will not grant what we pray for because he has a greater gift in store for us. Whenever that question arises, I think of Saint Teresa of Avila, who once spoke to God in these words, “Why are you treating me this way?” “This is the way I treat my friends, Teresa.” She retorted, “Then, it’s no wonder you have so few!” I don’t know that any of us who read (or who compose) these reflections would dare compare our relationship with the Father to Saint Teresa’s, but we all can understand that dialogue in terms of four or five year old children who want to do what they want, and talk back when they don’t get their own way.

As children of God, we pray for those who are in sin, but not those who have “sinned unto death”, to use the original Greek phrase. This probably refers to apostasy, which is abandoning the church and forsaking the faith. But even in this case, while prayer is not encouraged, it is not forbidden.

The epistle concludes with a summary of the themes of the letter. There is a sharp contrast between the children of God, the people of the world, and those who belong to the evil one. The final verse is John’s perennial warning about idols – the word refers not only to pagan deities, but to anything that would deter the disciple of Christ from true devotion to God.

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Responsorial            Psalm 149
The Lord takes delight in his people.
Sing to the LORD a new song
of praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in their maker,
let the children of Zion rejoice in their king.
The Lord takes delight in his people.
Let them praise his name in the festive dance,
let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp.
For the LORD loves his people,
and he adorns the lowly with victory.
R. The Lord takes delight in his people.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy upon their couches;
Let the high praises of God be in their throats.
This is the glory of all his faithful. Alleluia.
R. The Lord takes delight in his people.

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Gospel                  John 3:22-30
Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea,
where he spent some time with them baptizing.
John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim,
because there was an abundance of water there,
and people came to be baptized,
for John had not yet been imprisoned.
Now a dispute arose between the disciples of John and a Jew
about ceremonial washings.
So they came to John and said to him,
“Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan,
to whom you testified,
here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.”
John answered and said,
“No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.
You yourselves can testify that I said that I am not the Christ,
but that I was sent before him.
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom;
the best man, who stands and listens for him,
rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.
So this joy of mine has been made complete.
He must increase; I must decrease.”


In the gospel according to John, the ministries of the Baptist and Jesus overlap, while according to Mary, it was only after John had been put in prison that Jesus began his own ministry. John’s intention may have been to put them together in order to contrast them.

The disciples of John are engaged in a dispute with a Jew, not otherwise identified, about ceremonial washing. (cf. Mark 7:2-5 : the washing of hands, cups, pitchers and kettles.). So they come to John and ask him about “the one to whom you testified”, who is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.” John’s answer, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven” (v.27). Or in another translation “One can lay claim only to what is given by God.”

We tend to lay claim only to what we believe we have achieved by our own effort. But the Baptist recognized that the things that are most distinctly my own are the purest of gifts from God. “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.” And John acknowledges that he knows his place in God’s plan. “You can testify that I am not the Christ, but that I was sent before him.” And he concludes with a favorite metaphor of John the Evangelist, that of the wedding feast. “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine must be made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.”

This reading suggests that the things I consider most distinctively my own are the purest gifts of God; the more they are mine, the more they are God’s; the more they are God’s, the more they are mine. This is true, because God is truly our own, “more ours than anything else we call our own”, said the German Dominican mystic Johannes Tauler. Another German Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote as follows:

“If it is true that God became man, it is also true that man became God … and so … you don’t have to borrow from God, for he is your own, and whatever you get, you get from yourself. Before God, work that does not come from your inmost self is dead. If a person’s work is to live, it must not come from sources outside himself, but from within, from the inmost depths of him.”

Donagh O’Shea, O.P


Sarah in the tent said...

When John talks of rejoicing at the bridegroom's voice, it reminds me of Luke's report of the visitation, when the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth's womb. He seems to be coming full circle here. His joy will be complete when he decreases and Christ increases.

There's a strange sort of literality to this prophecy, because John's height decreased by a head at his death, while Christ's height was increased by a crown of thorns! But perhaps we should rather understand it as a shift from the Old covenant to the New.

Something I don't understand about John the Baptist is the way he does not seem to recognize Jesus as his own cousin. In paintings, Mary and Elizabeth are often shown together with Jesus and John as infants, but in the Gospels, as adults, they only seem to recognize each other on a mystic level.

Also, John the Baptist was obviously a famous teacher, even more celebrated perhaps than Jesus in his day, but the only record of his teachings is in the Gospels. None of his disciples seems to have written about him. His disciples were also loyal enough to have stood by him when he was imprisoned - more loyal than the majority of Jesus' disciples - but they don't seem to have written about his teachings.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

Sarah, your opening comment echoes what John the Baptist says about himself, "I am not the One Who Is To Come. Another is coming who is greater than I, and I am not even worthy to untie his sandal straps." The beheading of John and the crowning of Jesus with thorns echo this same theme: I must decrease; He must increase.

The mission of John the Baptist was to "Prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his path." His preaching was not "didactic", but "exhortatory"; that is, his purpose was not to teach those who came to him some doctring, but to motivate them to reform their lives so that they would be ready to follow the Messiah when He came. It is not surprising that his disciples did not write about his teachings: Andrew and James, who met Jesus on the road after His baptism, told their brothers, Peter and John, and the four of them became the first disciples of Jesus. John's mission was the preface of the gospel; the remaining chapters were about Jesus. John knew his mission, and I'm sure he had no complaints, not even when he put his head on the executioner's pillow.