I couldn’t help but notice that today’s Gospel begins with the statement: “This is the testimony of John.” It set me to thinking about the kind of testimony that John offers. The testimony is given in response to a challenge. Perhaps there is an intrinsic link that exists between a challenge, and the response to that challenge, which is a “testimony” in its most personal sense. In other words, a challenge elicits a testimony.
His first questioners challenge his identity; they run through a list of possible identities, but John denies each identity which they offer him. Finally, out of frustration, and because they have to answer to those who sent them, they say, “Who are you…what do you have to say for yourself.” His response is not a named identity, it is an action: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, Make straight the way of the Lord.”
The point is underscored, repeated, when the second group of questioners come to him and challenge him: “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John responds by asserting what he does, “I baptize with water….” Then, pointing out that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize…,” he gives testimony to that other person by testifying to his own unworthiness, “…whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
Testimony is not given in words, the testimony which is most honest, is the testimony of actions/deeds. We have come to the start of a new year, one which is laden with challenge. During this coming year the United States will give testimony of its care for human life by how it responds to natural tragedies, many of them weather-related; the citizens of this country will try to assess the testimony of candidates for political office, and the testimony of heart-broken families will challenge the policies and practices of law enforcement communities.
Since 1963, the official motto of the Los Angeles police department has been “to protect and to serve”; John the Baptist might have been comfortable answering his challengers with that phrase; are you?
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Missions for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.