“What do you have to say for yourself?” John 1:23).
Today’s readings from the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John, assigned for the feast of two fourth-century saints, Basil and Gregory, offer us a rich convergence of themes. In the gospel, John the Baptist is being interrogated by religious authorities from Jerusalem about his authority and identity. Is he from God, with the Christ or a precursor to the coming of the Christ (Elijah or the Prophet)? John declares that he is not the Christ, but a messenger foretold by Isaiah — “A voice crying in the wilderness.”
The controversy surrounding John extends to Jesus, who will be examined all during his ministry for his claim to be one with God, a blasphemy that leads to his condemnation by the Sanhedrin and then to his execution by Rome. John’s gospel and the letters of John, written late in the first century, already reflect the fierce Christological debates over the relationship between Jesus and God: Is he a specially chosen human being, or one elevated to divine status, or the eternal Son of God? And what does this language mean?
By the fourth century, when Saints Basil and Gregory were bishops in Asia Minor (Turkey), these key questions were moving toward doctrinal formulation at the Council of Nicea, which we recite together at Sunday liturgy as the Nicene Creed. Jesus is affirmed to be “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father.”
Yesterday’s Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God is important to this debate since her title Theotokos (God-bearer), declared by the Council of Ephesus, reflects Jesus’ identity as truly human and truly divine.
We begin the New Year, still in the Christmas season, with this deep theological grounding in the mystery of Jesus because this is the organizing principle of our faith. If Jesus is not the Word Incarnate, God among us, then everything we believe about ourselves and our destiny as invited to share the divine life collapses into wishful thinking. The meaning of our baptism, our life in Communion, our spiritual development as members of the body of Christ, our mission to share in his mission to redeem the world, all become just ideas.
Whatever we build and what we become in the year ahead will depend on this foundation, focused on Christ, growing in Christ, following Christ as faithful disciples. This is the joy of the Gospel.