This year the period between the end of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season and the beginning of Lent is brief. There are just four Sundays as we begin ordinary time. These initial readings continue the manifestation of Jesus with John the Baptist’s witness of Jesus. The readings are also united around the theme of vocation, which prepares for the narratives of the call and initial formation of the disciples on the coming Sundays. The Old Testament reading presents another Servant Song of Isaiah, in which God commissions the servant to be a light to the nations, and the initial verses of 1 Corinthians recount Paul’s call to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.
Though the Baptist is the herald of Jesus’ arrival in all the Gospels, his altered role in John reflects that Gospel’s distinct theology. Three times in the Prologue (Jn. 1:7, 8, 15) John’s role is to offer testimony about Jesus, which is completed by his final words in the Gospel (3:22-30). John’s Gospel also makes clear that the Baptist is subordinate to Jesus; he is not the light. The one who comes ranks ahead of me because he was before me. And though John speaks of Jesus’ baptism, he does not actually baptize Jesus. John’s farewell is, He must increase; I must decrease.
Today’s Gospel is a preview of the major themes of John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is on trial by worldly powers arrayed against him. John appears as a witness for the defense who offers true testimony about Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb of God, which recalls the memory of the servant as the lamb led to death in Is. 53:7, and Jesus is the paschal lamb sacrificed for the sin of the world. The text does not say sins but the world’s sin, which evokes the motif of the world as the place of rejection and opposition. The Baptist says that Jesus existed before him, and that God revealed to him that the one on whom the Spirit comes down and remains is the Son of God.
Today’s Gospel is both a preview of Johannine theology and a summons to faithful witness. Despite the vocation of the Christian to find God’s footsteps in the world, worldly powers and values are often in conflict with Christ’s teachings. Being a witness for the defense today involves speaking the truth about Christ, but always with that attitude that he must increase; I must decrease.