John the Baptist has a key role in all the four gospels. However, in contrast to the synoptic gospels where John is primarily a prophet of repentance and conversion, accompanied by the fierce threat of unquenching fire, in the fourth gospel John has a very sober image. He does not make his appearance from the wilderness, as an extreme ascetic, but unfolds as part of the eternal divine plan: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (Jn 1:6), declared the evangelist, right after the description of the Mystery of the Word.
John’s mission was to bear witness to the light, the Word Incarnate. He does not invite attention to himself, but gives testimony to Jesus. He has no claim to be a prophet or the Messiah, but a voice preparing the path for the Messiah. Even the baptism that he administered had the purpose “that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31).
John not only introduces Jesus to the world but even directs his own disciples to him and they in turn bring others to Jesus. Using a Buddhist parable we can say John is only a finger that points to the moon. The finger is not important but the moon.
All these have tremendous significance for the religious and missionaries in India and everywhere, for that matter. Christian mission is not primarily for pronouncing fire on others who are not baptized. The religious and missionaries are not prophets of doom but joyful testimony to the Light, the Incarnate Word who came that all may have life in its fullness.
Though there has to be communities of the disciples of Jesus everywhere, to serve as pointers to Jesus Christ, that the light that he brought may shine everywhere, Christian mission is not primarily a religious mission, in the sense of changing the religion of others, but walking the path that Jesus chalked out.
It is a path of hospitality: “Come and see,” is the very first invitation that the Johannine Jesus extends to those who wanted to follow him. Religious houses and Christian institutions are the incarnations of the divine hospitality that does not turn anyone back.
It is a mission of humility. “He must increase, I must decrease,” declared John (Jn 3:30). Christian service is not a question of power-wielding or extension of the field of influence, but serving as witness to the path of Jesus. It is a path of love and respect, especially for the least of the society. It is the ‘Joy of the Gospel’ as Pope Francis would express it.
The religious and all Christians realize how, like John the Baptist they too are part of the divine eternal plan, that has called us “from the mother’s womb” (Jer 1:5) to be witnesses to the Light. This calls for unfailing dedication and constant transparency to say: “come and see”. It is not appeasing fanaticism or giving into defeatism in the face of violent communalism but retrieving the genuine gospel spirit. After all, this form of Christianity existed in India already from the first Christian century, much before most other religions, including today’s version of Hinduism.