Expert witnesses are used in trials to give testimony on a particular area in which they have expertise. Lawyers will often call on these witnesses to give the court insight into a certain aspect of the question under discussion. A similar occasion might occur in an educational setting where a professor or teacher will bring in a guest lecturer on a specific topic so that the students might go deeper into the particular issues related to the subject matter.
We sometimes encounter the same concept when reading a special report in the newspaper. The journalist will seek experts on the particular issue on which he or she is reporting.
John the Baptist acts as a witness in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy. He testifies before the crowds. The particular topic is the identity of Jesus. John’s witness centers around two titles that he uses to describe Jesus. The two titles are Lamb of God and Son of God.
John says: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is identified as the “lamb.” The reference is a clear association with the Passover lamb. In the Exodus account just before they are delivered from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are instructed by the Lord to prepare a meal. This is the night of the Passover. A lamb will be procured, sacrificed and eaten on the night before the Exodus. The event is memorialized in the annual celebration of Passover to commemorate the Exodus and the deliverance of Israel.
Jesus replaces the lamb that is sacrificed with himself. The “Lamb of God” theme comes to the fore again in the fourth Gospel when Jesus is crucified at the same time the lambs are slaughtered for the annual Passover celebrations. Whereas the Passover lamb recalled Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the paschal lamb (Jesus) delivers mankind from the power of sin. Thus John testifies that Jesus is the one “who takes away the sin of the world.”
John reinforces his witness by explaining that Jesus is the one of whom he previously spoke: “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” Divine action confirms that Jesus is the “one” when John sees the Spirit coming down upon him in the form of a dove after the baptism.
John is considered an expert witness. His ministry was acclaimed by many and widely recognized as of divine origin. He was regarded as a prophet. When he says, “the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit,’” John’s status as witness is taken to a new level. He is divinely designated to be the one who testifies on behalf of Jesus, so his testimony is reliable.
John further says: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” Jesus is the “Son of God.” The words of Isaiah, from the first reading of the liturgy, apply to Jesus who is the Father’s “servant, through whom I show my glory.” God will be known through the servant; the Father will be made known through the Son.
The title also points to the mission of Jesus which is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel” and to be “a light to the nations” so that the Lord’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” As John testifies to Jesus’ identity, he is also testifying that the dawn of salvation has arrived. Jesus will usher in salvation as he offers himself on the cross and is raised in glory.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins through his self-offering. Jesus is the Son of God, sent from the Father on the mission of salvation. We have experienced and are experiencing the salvation Jesus won for us. Through his grace and abiding presence we continue to grow in the effects of his sacrifice.
St. Paul captures the experience in these words from the opening of his First Letter to the Corinthians: “to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy….” While “sanctified” speaks of an action of the past which has ongoing effect, “called to be holy” recognizes the continual action and growth necessary for the believer to become holy.
John witnesses to Jesus’ identity and his mission as it is about to begin. Like John we too are called to give testimony. Our witness is from a different perspective though. Our testimony is after his passion, death and resurrection. Our testimony is after we have experienced the salvation he has won for us.
The more we recognize, identify and articulate these effects in our lives and in the life of the Church, the more vibrant will be our witness. The more we continue to grow in holiness, the more effective our witness.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.