The Sermon of “St John the Baptist”, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566, Museum of Fine arts, Budapest

We Do Not Have To go Through this Life Alone

The above painting by Bruegel is a perfect example of the inclusiveness of John the Baptist’s message in today’s Gospel. It represents a large group of people from all nations listening to a sermon by John the Baptist, as he points his right hand towards a figure in blue, who must be Jesus. Sitting at the bottom of the tree on the left is a pilgrim from the Camino de Compostela, denoted by the shells on his hat. There is a lot of detail that is worth exploring here – especially in the background that is difficult to see in this picture. If you enlarge it (see link below) you will observe lots of people rushing down to the water’s edge to be baptised and they look like they are in a hurry!

We are living in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and that must be challenging our faith. As we enter 2023, we are still on a global crisis continuum that is proving to be very unsettling. Covid-19 is still with us, the war in Ukraine is becoming more protracted, and we are experiencing (in real time) a major climate crisis. While humankind is very resilient and has weathered many difficulties throughout the centuries – the question is, who can we really turn to in this hour of need?

It has to be Jesus. The first reading from Isaiah foretells Jesus as the one who will be “a light to the nations” whose “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. What’s not to believe? Let’s trace the build up to this: John the Baptist, born of Elizabeth and Zachariah, is the last prophet of the New Testament, the forerunner for Christ, and has been preparing the community for this meeting for some time. Historically he is identified by the Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who also writes about Jesus. It is worth noting that Jesus was also one of John the Baptist’s disciples to be pointed out and proclaimed to the community as the one who comes from God and speaks on his behalf. This is “a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me, I myself did not know him; but I came baptising with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel”. He vocally becomes the direct witness to the light of Jesus.

What we have here is a testimony of recognition in the first person.  John the Baptist’s message is all about reconciliation – an opportunity to right relationships with each other and ultimately with God. Through this, we are led to action through the prism of Justice. It is a calling us to unite and challenge the injustices, not only societal structural violence, but also speaking out in our own communities about reconciliation and unity.

Let us look outside of ourselves and see the detail, especially now in this current slow-moving sludge of an economic turndown, where everyone is suffering on all sorts of levels, and many do this in silence. I was very moved to hear a story on the radio this week about a young mother who, on leaving a food bank, opened a tin of baked beans on her way home and started to eat with her hands. She had deprived herself so her children could have food.

Let us seek out the hidden ones in our own society to share what we have. By doing that we bring the message of true faith and companionship. Listen to the Spirit who continually nudges us to respond to the signs of the times with compassion, charity and love. We do not have to go through this life alone.

Susie O’Rawe OP