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Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 41:55)

     In the early 1500’s, a gifted German artist by the name of Matthias Grünewald painted an altarpiece of great power and beauty. Five hundred years later, it still draws people from across the world to the French village of Colmar where it graces a lovely chapel. At the center of the Grünewald altarpiece is the crucified Christ whose unspeakable sufferings are echoed in the compassionate faces of Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple. Off to the side is John the Baptist.  Holding the holy scriptures in one hand, he points intently to Christ with his index finger. For all its anachronism (John the Baptist, after all, never stood at the cross of Christ), there is in this great painting a powerful presentation of John the Baptist and his role – this mysterious man who came from God to do one thing only: to point to the light. “He was not the light; he came to give witness to the Light.”

     Of course, we at St. James don’t need to go all the way to France to see John the Baptist depicted in a remarkable work of art. We have only to climb the few steps to the cathedral chapel to see our own Renaissance altarpiece by Neri di Bicci.
Hard to believe, but our altarpiece actually predates the Grünewald one by fifty years or so – from the year, 1456, to be exact. Near the center of it is John the Baptist, a scroll in one hand that proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and the index finger of the other hand pointing to Jesus – not the crucified Jesus, but the tiny child Jesus about to be nursed in his mother’s arms.

     Our painting is no less anachronistic than the Grünewald one, for John the Baptist was not that mature, rather scraggly figure at the time Jesus was cradled in his mother’s arms. But no matter: it is the Baptist’s call that counts – his vocation to point to the Light. And that vocation is a timeless one.

     Each year during Advent, it’s the church that points to John the Baptist, as if to say to us: there is your model. Look to John the Baptist for how you are to live out your Christian calling – your baptism - for, my friends, like John, we are to be witnesses.  Like John, we are not the Light, but point to the Light we must.

     This past week, I found myself thinking about John the Baptist and about what it is that makes a good witness. Three things came to my mind. A good witness knows who he or she is; a good witness always points to the other, not the self; and a good witness cares more for the truth than for what others think.

     John the Baptist was a good witness. He knew exactly who he was. When they put the question to him, “Who are you?” he made it clear that he was not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the one some called the Prophet. “I am only a voice,” he told them, “only a witness, not even worthy to loosen the sandal strap of the one who is coming after me.” A good witness knows who he or she is, or isn’t – that’s the first thing.

     And a good witness always points to the other, never to the self. John the Baptist spent his life pointing to the other. “He must increase,” he insisted, “I must decrease…I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord!’”
Lastly, a good witness cares more for the truth than for what others think. John the Baptist, clad in camel hair (not the Nordstrom variety!) and eating wild insects and honey, always said what needed to be said, what truth demanded to be said, and then he ‘let the chips fall.’ Well, one day the axe fell right on his neck. Such can be the lot of the witness.

     I can never think of a faithful witness without thinking about one of our former Archbishops, Raymond Hunthausen, who died five years ago and is laid to rest in the Cathedral crypt over there. He’s a man whose memory needs to be kept alive, as those of you who were privileged to know him will agree. During the sixteen years he led this local church, Archbishop Hunthausen more than established his credentials as a faithful witness. In all he did, he made it abundantly clear that he knew who he was. He was our shepherd and leader, yes, but he never forgot that, in the Church, leadership means service – the humble service of Jesus who got down on his hands and knees to wash his disciples’ feet.

     And in the archbishop’s ministry among us, it was always Jesus he pointed to, never himself. The question, “What would Jesus do?” was his question long before it became something of a bumper sticker slogan. “What would Jesus do?” was the question he instinctively asked every time he faced a decision.

     Lastly, like a good witness, he cared more for the truth than for what others thought. In preaching the gospel, he took the risk of challenging people, stretching their way of thinking, never stopping to count the personal cost. And there was a cost, a price to be paid!

     My friends in Christ, during these Advent days we should thank God for the example of good witnesses because we are all called to be witnesses, and people like John the Baptist and Archbishop Hunthausen show us the way. Witnesses know who they are and because of this they point not to themselves but to Christ who is the truth and who frees them to speak the truth.

      But there is one more thing about witnessing I need to say, and this is the scary part. The Greek word for witness is martyr. All witnesses, in one way or another, end up by losing their lives. But, of course, in doing so, they find them!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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