The evangelist tells the story of John with a certain simplicity and elegance:
"There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light… John testified concerning that light. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” (1.6-8, 15)
But he is something of a mystery, and skeptics come to pester him with questions, which he keeps answering in simple clear terms:
"Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” Finally they said, “Then who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
Others try again:
"Then the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (1.19-27)
But there is more. As we all know, Matthew and Luke supplement Mark’s simple account with the back story of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem (and even the Annunciation to Mary in Luke, and Joseph’s dream about Mary’s pregnancy in Matthew). John too has a story to tell, but his is much older still, going back to the beginning of all things:
"In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the Beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (1.1-5)
That eternal original light, the Word and original Wisdom, now illumines this world and all that is in it:
"The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (1.9-14)
This Word, this Light, comes to stay among us, the God who cannot be seen now seen among us:
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (1.14, 16-18)
All of this is very grand. Indeed, it is hard to think of any vision of Christ in the Bible more splendid than this. But the evangelist has a larger plan. By weaving together the narrative about John and the narrative of the Word made flesh, he is placing John the Baptist in the context of God’s greatest plan, the great arc of history from the Beginning of all things to the moment when John came out of the desert. And he is reminding us that the eternal Word has to be received and recognized by an intense and simple man of the desert, the man named John, who has been waiting for just this impossible arrival of God in human flesh:
"This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”(1.28-34)
Thus the true meaning of Christmas as the Gospel according to John sees it: the eternal Word — coming down to dwell among us, on a particular day, in a particular place — with no fanfare or angels or stars or visions — simply there to be seen by John — a man from the desert who lives every day with his eyes open to the Spirit of God at work in the world: that's it, that is the chemistry of the coming of the Messiah. What else is needed?
One more thing is needed, it turns out, because the real point is even simpler, more immediate, closer up:
"The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying. They spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. (1.35-39)
That is to say: the eternal Word, who was there in the Beginning, in whom the world was created, who is the Light in the darkness, the long awaited Messiah — happens to be right over there, about six feet from you, walking by right now. Look! There he is! And it turns out that he lives just a few minutes walk from here...
Thus begins the rest of the story of the Word in the world, Jesus and his disciples beginning to gather, simply because one person — John — points Jesus out to Andrew and a few others and then steps out of the way. Jesus responds in the most ordinary, non-Messianic, neighborly way: come over, spend the afternoon where I live. Let’s break bread together, have a glass of wine.
This is where we come in. We were not with John in the desert; we were not there at the Jordan, to be baptized by him; we were not there in Bethlehem to see Mary and Joseph and the baby; and we certainly were not there in the Beginning, when the Word was with God before all else.
But what matters is that we are here and now. That is enough, for this is where we meet God. We are here in December 2020 amid a devastating pandemic, in an environmentally degraded world, amid systemic injustices old and new. I look like this, you look like that; I am a man, you are woman; I am old, you are young. But whoever and however we are, Jesus happens to live nearby, just a few streets away. Come and see.
It’s really very easy, the evangelist is telling us. At the start, you need a Baptist, just arrived from the desert, to point out Jesus. But the rest is up to you. Let us accept the invitation, visit Jesus in the middle of this barren winter, and spend some time with him, a few hours that add up to an eternity. Let us too be like John the Baptist, helping others in their search for God, pointing to the Light as best we can, then getting out of the way, that God might speak to every individual in her own way. What could make for a better Christmas?
Look, says John.
Come and see, says Jesus.
See for yourself, we say to one another.
(An earlier "live" version of this homily can be found in the recorded Mass for this weekend, here.)