Remember first of all that the first stage is to read it. Here is the Vulgate:
“Et hoc est testimonium Iohannis quando miserunt Iudaei ab Hierosolymis sacerdotes et Levitas ad eum ut interrogarent eum tu quis es. Et confessus est et non negavit et confessus est quia non sum ego Christus”
If you want to have a listen to what it should sound like, Fr Zulsdorf has actually made a recording of this and all the Propers for this weekend over at his site, well worth a listen to.
Now have a look at the English version:
19. And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you?
20. And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.”
I suggested trying to memorize this is possible (either in English or Latin). Normally I’m not very good a remembering Gospel’s for more than a day or two, but actually this one is imprinted on my brain forever in English at least courtesy of participating in a (memorable for a variety of reasons!) performance many years ago of Orlando Gibbon’s wonderful version setting of this – have a listen, it might help you too!
Remember that this is mainly about working out how you are going to tackle the study of the passage, as well as gathering preliminary ideas on where your meditation might focus.
Context: Bear in mind that St John the Evangelist was a disciple of St John the Baptist, so was in a pretty good position to record John’s testimony!
Literal meaning: If you aren’t familiar with this Gospel, go read the text set for this Sunday, or even the whole of Chapter One to get the context. But I think that John’s baptizing efforts, just before the start of Jesus’ public ministry will be pretty familiar to most! The Navarre Bible and Ignatius Study Guide also provide useful maps and explanations of the literal meaning of the text.
Haycock's Bible is an old but good online resource for this. On this particular passage it says:
“Ver. 19. The Jews sent, &c. These men, who were priests and Levites, seem to have been sent and deputed by the sanhedrim, or great council at Jerusalem, to ask of John the Baptist, who was then in great esteem and veneration, whether he was not their Messias; who, as they knew by the predictions of the prophets, was to come about that time. John declared to them he was not….”
Spiritual meaning: One approach is to look at the Scriptural cross-references to this passage, or use a Greek concordance to dig into the meaning of the passage in depth. But personally, in order to get started at least, I think you really can’t go past the Church Father’s on this, and I want to recommend a few good resources.
First, if you are looking online (it is out of print and/or extraordinarily expensive in book form, much as I'd love to have it), the Catena Aurea of St Thomas is a wonderful resource which I’ll talk about more below. Secondly, Biblia Clerus brings together a number of patristic commentaries and magisterial references.
In terms of real books, I love the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series - an ecumenical project designed to counteract the historico-critical school believe it for not, but one I can truly support (even though in using it you do have to keep in mind the occasional bit of protestant bias in translation and selection of texts)! Another Catena style approach, for each section it provides an overview of what the Fathers have to say, then selected extracts from their commentaries by verse.
OK, So let's get down to it! As I've said, there are lots of different approaches you can take to this task, but one of the most useful tools for lectio I’ve found is the Catena Aurea compiled by St Thomas Aquinas, as it almost always both answers the questions on the literal meaning of the text, and gives some good jumping off points for the spiritual. Take a look at a couple of extracts for these verses for example:
“ORIGEN; The Jews of Jerusalem, as being of kin to the Baptist, who was of the priestly stock, send Priests and Levites to ask him who he is; that is, men considered to hold a superior rank to the rest of their order, by God's election, and coming from that favored above all cities, Jerusalem. Such is the reverential way in which they interrogate John. We read of no such proceeding towards Christ: but what the Jews did to John, John in turn does to Christ, when he asks Him, through His disciples, Are you He that should come, or look we for another? John, as it appears, saw from the question, that the Priests and Levites had doubts whether it might not be the Christ, who was baptizing; which doubts however they were afraid to profess openly, for fear of incurring the charge of credulity.
He wisely determines therefore first to correct their mistake, and then to proclaim the truth. Accordingly, he first of all shows that he is not the Christ: And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. We may add here, that at this time the people had already begun to be impressed with the idea that Christ's advent was at hand, in consequence of the interpretations which the lawyers had collected out of the sacred writings to that effect.
Thus Theudas had been enabled to collect together a considerable body, on the strength of his pretending to be the Christ; and after him Judas, in the days of the taxation, had done the same. Such being the strong expectation of Christ's advent then prevalent, the Jews send to John, intending by the question, Who are you? to extract from him whether he were the Christ.
GREG. He denied directly being what he was not, but he did not deny what he was: thus, by his speaking truth, becoming a true member of Him Whose name he had not dishonestly usurped.
CHRYS. Or take this explanation: The Jews were influenced by a kind of human sympathy for John, whom they were reluctant to see made subordinate to Christ, on account of the many marks of greatness about him; his illustrious descent in the first place, he being the son of a chief priest; in the next, his hard training, and his contempt of the world.
Whereas in Christ the contrary were apparent; a humble birth, for which they reproach Him; Is not this the carpenter's son? an ordinary way of living; a dress such as every one else wore. ….And observe the wisdom of the Evangelist: he repeats the same thing three times, to show John's virtue, and the malice and madness of the Jews. For it is the character of a devoted servant, not only to forbear taking to himself his lord's glory, but even, when numbers offer it to him, to reject it. The multitude indeed believed from ignorance that John was the Christ, but in these it was malice; and in this spirit they put the question to him, thinking, by their blandishments to bring him over to their wishes."
How to use it
As you go through it, highlight the things that strike you, and jot down the things that flow from them in terms of possible topics for meditation. The important point to bear in mind here is that the objective is not to write an essay on Scripture, but to identify the message of the text for you.
Here is a bit of a list (by no means complete) to give you some idea of the types of possibilities you might come up with as you read a good commentary on the text, or think about it yourself:
- You can start at the ‘macro’ level, on God’s providential plan for our salvation, and how that can be reproduced in our own lives this Advent.
- Or think about St John’s asceticism, one of the reasons why he was held in such esteem, and how we stack up on this front.
- About the need to stand up for and preach our own faith and beliefs, correcting error and proclaiming the truth, even we know that any acclaim we win is likely to be very shortlived, and there will be scoffers!
- About the strength of St John’s conviction about his own charism, which clearly had not been endorsed in advance by the religious establishment.
- About the way St John fulfilled Jewish expectations of what a holy man should look like and do – in contrast to Our Lord!
- About the motives of the Jewish authorities, who perhaps stand for all worldly authorities when confronted with holiness that challenges the status quo!
- About St John’s humility in knowing his own position relative to Christ, and the contrast with some early false messiahs.
Next comes meditation and prayer
Hopefully as you study the text and commentaries, the most important issues for you to pray and meditate on will become evident as you look at what you have jotted down. But if not, don’t worry, just pick one or two things to take to the next stage, which we will talk more on next time,