Pointing the Way
Pointing the Way

Pointing the Way

Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday). Fr Gregory Murphy ponders the way in which John the Baptist witnesses to Christ.

As we begin the third week of Advent there is a palpable shift in mood: Gaudete (rejoice!). The Lord comes, Isaiah says, sending his anointed before him to bring good news to the poor and heal hearts that are broken, to engender integrity and praise among his people. Paul echoes this in the excerpt we hear from his letter to the Thessalonians – we are in God’s presence, the God who calls us to himself and never fails us, who makes us holy by the gift of his Holy Spirit. This holiness comes through prayer, we are called to test the voices of our age by discernment in the Spirit, leading us to accept the radical newness that God promises. We are to live lives orientated to the new age dawning from on high.


In this, the figure of the Baptist points the way. But what is most striking about the testimony of John is not the positive statements John makes about Jesus ‘the one who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ but the negative statements John makes about himself: he is not the Messiah; nor Elijah, expected to return before the Day of the Lord and perhaps point out the Messiah; nor the prophet (like Moses) expected to resolve disputed questions of religious law. Moses and Elijah are linked elsewhere in the story of Jesus (cf the scene of the Transfiguration in Mark 9) and there was a vivid expectancy among the people of Israel at this time that the Lord would send his messenger to announce his coming. Many expected this messenger to be a powerful servant of the Lord taken into his presence, like Elijah carried to God in a whirlwind, or Moses who in the tradition had no tomb, and was by some assumed to have been translated directly into heaven at the end of his life.


John does not identify himself with these powerful figures but with voice of Isaiah crying in the wilderness. This is thought to originally refer to the role of angels preparing a way through the desert by which Israel might return from Babylonian captivity, but John is rather to prepare a way for God to come to his people. His baptising and preaching in the desert  opens up people’s hearts, turning them back to the God who comes to them and satisfies their desires to live in integrity and holiness, so be able to worthily praise God.


John the Baptist always points away from himself towards Jesus, the ‘one whom you do not know’. This prefigures various encounters of others with Jesus in St John’s Gospel, and in the other Gospels, who either do not know or who do not understand him, even those who are his disciples. And this might help us understand our own role as witnesses to the Lord. Like John, we should point to Jesus rather than to ourselves. Like the disciples, we may not be too clear about who Jesus is, trying to fit him into our arrogant preconceptions of who he should be rather than allowing the Spirit to guide us into the truth of Jesus, and of ourselves.  As Paul reminds us, we best achieve this by praying constantly in the community of Christ’s body, happy to praise the God who reveals himself to us in the face of Jesus. This is the witness of our lives: to prepare the way of the Lord, to avoid becoming an obstacle in His path.

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11 | 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 | John 1:6-8,19-28

Image: Icon of the Prophet Isaiah by Ted (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fr Gregory Murphy is currently engaged in parochial ministry and teaching in the Diocese of Dunkeld.

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