A Reflection on the Gospel of John 5: 33-36
“I will set a lamp for my anointed. His foes I will clothe with shame, but on him his crown shall shine.” (Psalm 132:17b–18 NABRE)
The Lamp is a very prominent symbol in Sacred Scripture. The prophet Samuel called David the “lamp of Israel” (2 Sam 21:17). The extinguishing of a lamp signified destruction, such as that of Judah (Jer 25:10) or the wicked (Job 21:17). God’s Word is described as a lamp for our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105). Today in the Gospel, Jesus describes His cousin, St John the Baptist, as a lamp. Jesus tells the Jewish leaders, with whom He is contending,
John was a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light. But I have testimony greater than John’s. (John 5:35-36 NABRE)
St John was certainly a brightly shining lamp who burned hot for Christ, God’s anointed. We hear in the Gospel of Matthew that,
Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Matthew 3:5b–6 NABRE)
St John the Baptist, a prophet like no other, drew people to him as a bright light draws moths in a dark night. Even the Scribes and the Pharisees, whom St John openly denounced as a “brood of vipers,” came out to see this prophet who had emerged in the wilderness (Matt 3:7). It is amazing to consider how far people traveled. People likely walked between 250 to 300 miles to see him. It is a five-hour drive from Jerusalem today through some very inhospitable terrain. Imagine what it was like in 29-30AD. Yet, they came in droves! They came because light shone forth from John, the lamp, like no other.
The purpose of a lamp is to illuminate and expose all things around it. Within the darkness we sense danger from what we know may be there but cannot be seen. It is the danger of that which lurks and threatens; yet is not exposed. Who, on a dark night wandering along a road, out in the wilderness, or in the midst of a dark house, does not find comfort in switching on or lighting a lamp? We seek the light; for, without a lamp, we become rapidly lost. How often amid darkness have you wished you had a light?
But what is a lamp without electricity or oil? It is useless. Even if the lamp is connected to power or filled with oil, the lamp remains unusable until it is switched on or lit. The lamp itself is simply a conduit of the fuel which flows through it. St John was the perfect lamp. He opened himself such that He was “switched on” so that Jesus, the “light of the world,” could shine forth drawing us away from sin and death towards love, mercy, and salvation.
Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we receive the light of Christ. For an adult Baptism, the Priest or Deacon gives a lit candle to the Baptized and says, “You have been enlightened by Christ. Walk always as a child of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts.” At that moment, we become lamps. Yet will we burn for Christ? St Augustin writes that,
“all human beings … really are lamps when they are wise, shine and burn with the Spirit; while if they were burning and have gone out, they stink. The good lamps, you see, have persevered as servants of God, kept alight from the oil of his mercy, not from their own strength. God’s freely-given grace, I mean, that is the oil in the lamps.” (Aug., Tract. in ev. Joan. 23.3)
God has crafted us into flawless vessels of light. We are not the light, but simply reflect the light that flows through us. Yet, we cannot reflect God’s light unless we remain plugged in. We must enter into the light in order to reflect it. Classical Artists understood this well. One of the great paintings of Jesus in the manger is the “Adoration of the Shepherds" by Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst. In the painting, all light emanates from the Christ-Child. Without His light all is pitch black. The light of Christ reflects from the faces of those gazing at the Christ Child. His light penetrates the darkness of all who draw near. Look especially at the Blessed Virgin Mary, her image is the brightest as she throws wide her arms, bathed in light. She is full of grace.
Nativity painting by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst: "Adoration of the Shepherds" (1622)
During this time of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, the Light of the World, may we seek to be filled with the oil of grace and switched on so that like St John the Baptist, we become “a burning and shining lamp.” May Christ’s light within us draw those wandering in the darkness so that they might repent and discover the love, mercy, and grace offered by our Lord Jesus Christ who will then fill them with His light. For,
If your whole body is full of light, and no part of it is in darkness, then it will be as full of light as a lamp illuminating you with its brightness.” (Luke 11:36 NABRE)
Burn and shine brightly with the light of Christ!
New American Bible. Revised Edition (NABRE). Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. Print.
St Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 1–40. Ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald and Boniface Ramsey. Trans. Edmund Hill. Vol. 12. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2009. Print. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century.
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