Saturday, January 12, 2008

Saturday After Epiphany
The Ladder Left Behind

Readings: 1 John 5:14-21; Psalm 149:1-2, 3-4, 5-6a and 9b; John 3:22-30

Yesterday, we were led by our readings to reflect on how Christmas is an occasion for us to receive God’s testimony of love for us in Christ Jesus. And we did not simply stop there. For a sure sign of our reception of God’s testimony is that we, in our turn, are moved to offer our own unique testimony to the world. Providentially, today’s Mass readings help us to consider more deeply something of what it’s like to testify in this way, what it’s like to be a witness.

We begin by considering what might be considered a common occupational hazard of bearing witness. I recently heard a homily by a Jesuit in his eighties who spoke about how, in his own experience, guarding against this same temptation is a life-long task, especially for those who minister to others, those who heed the call to testify. The danger is the same one that John the Baptist faces in the gospel today. Despite opposition from some quarters, John has experienced some success in his ministry. He has attracted followers. But this success brings with it an accompanying danger. The members of the John the Baptist fan club complain to him that Jesus is baptizing and everyone is coming to him. John is thus faced with the danger of actually competing with the very One on whose behalf he has been laboring to testify.

I suspect that it is not too difficult for many of us to identify with John’s situation. At least it’s not for me. Whoever we are, isn’t it all too easy to allow our witness to become centered on ourselves rather than on the Lord? We may begin by testifying on Christ’s behalf, but as we gather more people around us to hear the Good News, how tempting it is to want to keep them by our side, even when it may be time for them to move on. However subtly or gradually, what might have started out as a simple coffee-stand, we develop into a restaurant, and then a five-star hotel, and even a palatial villa. Whatever it takes to keep people with us.

Which is why John’s example is so invaluable. How does he avoid succumbing to the temptation to lead people to himself? He continually remembers who he is and what he was sent to do. His personal relationship with God enables him to never lose sight of the fact that I am not the Christ… Instead he sees himself as the best man who rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice… We might be reminded here of that famous metaphor used by the philosopher Wittgenstein. He spoke of his philosophy as steps on a ladder. Rather than clinging onto the ladder, you leave it behind after you have climbed it. Doesn’t this sound a lot like John’s attitude towards his own ministry when he says of Jesus, he must increase; I must decrease? Indeed, John was willing to decrease to the extent of suffering martyrdom at the hands of Herod. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget that the word martyr also means witness.

As we come to the end of the Christmas season, perhaps it will do us good to reflect upon our own efforts at bearing witness to Christ. Do we try to build comfortable villas to keep people by our side at all costs? Or are we willing instead to submit to the martyrdom of being discarded like a ladder that has been climbed?

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