At my first reading of this Sunday’s Gospel, I thought: Didn’t we read this Gospel last week? Don’t you remember John, straightways, being in the desert, baptism in the Jordan, the “I baptize with water” statements? I felt that surely I had the wrong passage; there must have been a misprint. Then I read the passage again and looked for my favorite thing – the words that jumped out at me. And there it was, the word Testify. My reflection today is going to be based on the “testify, testimony, testifying” concept. It is used four times in the opening paragraph and twice more if you include the confessional word “admitted.” Testimony is defined as a statement or declaration of a witness under oath or affirmation, evidence in support of a fact or statement; proof.
A few years ago a teenager I knew was arrested, jailed and brought to court. The parents asked if I would come to the hearing and testify as to his character. I felt confident, I had him in class, and I knew his parents. So after I was sworn in, the conversation went something like this:
Prosecutor: So Gladys, Ms. Guenther, what am I supposed to call you anyway?
Response: Most people in the parish call me Sr. Gladys.
Prosecutor: What is your relationship to Juan (name substitution here)?
Response: He is a member of our parish, and one of the youth in my Monday night religion class.
Prosecutor: So what do you teach him?
Response: I went on about the Creed and lectionary based catechesis, that he was preparing for confirmation.
Prosecutor: As part of your teaching, do you teach the Ten Commandments?
Prosecutor: Can you name them all?
Prosecutor: And do you teach your students to live out the Commandments?
Prosecutor: Has Juan been there for those classes?
Prosecutor: Then why did he get into the fight and almost kill someone?
Response: I don’t know that he initiated the fight. I think he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Prosecutor: Are his actions a reflection of your teaching?
The interrogation continued in that vein. I kept returning positive statements until finally the prosecutor said: “So doesn’t this mean you have failed as a teacher?” At which point I turned to the Judge and calmly asked: “Your honor, am I on trial here?” I was shaken, exhausted and frustrated that I was not seemingly giving witness to the youth’s character, or helping his case. You could feel the tension in the room.
I felt the same way when we heard today that “a man, John, came for testimony.” He witnesses to the priests, Levites, Pharisees, and the common folk (for surely this story comes from them). The bigwigs are all gathered, but John doesn’t let his ego get in the way – No, I’m not the Christ; No, I am not Elijah; No, I am not a prophet. I am definitely not here to bring you fame or importance. Stop thinking that you should stand in my light, or ask me to betray Christ.
John says in so many words:
I have a voice, but I am not the Word.
I am like a lantern, but I am not the Light.
I call people to reconciliation, but I do not baptize with fire and passion.
In a very real way we are asked to give Testimony like John:
Could anyone accuse us of being Christ’s disciple? Could we prove it?
Could we tell tales about how we have resisted temptation and overcome sin?
Our Joy, on this Gaudete Sunday, is in preparing for Christ’s coming, testifying with our lives, time, talent, values, energies and priorities to the promise of God’s kingdom, justice, compassion and peace. Like John, our task is to bring people to the light and then step aside. It’s an important task!
I left the witness chair, the proceedings continued; Juan was convicted, he went to jail and six years later was released, a very worldly-wise youth; his parents, his friends, his neighbors gave him a “welcome home” party–it was bittersweet.
As I recall, despite what he testified John the Baptist was also jailed, and eventually lost his life. Testimony has a cost. Today we are asked to believe that it can also bring us deep Joy!