|He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom. (John 3:29)|
Thursday in the 4th Week of Easter, Acts 13:13-25
As John was completing his course, he would say, “What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.”
At the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, St. Paul spoke to the Jews and those who were God-fearing, proclaiming to them the Gospel of Christ. Beginning with the exodus of the people of Israel and their entrance into the promised land, the Apostle goes on to speak of Saul and finally of David from whose line came the Christ. St. Paul places the Savior entirely within the context of his Jewish heritage as the one who has fulfilled the promises of the Law and the Prophets. In this speech we see the famous dictum at work: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” (CCC 129)
In the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Church heard St. Paul’s speech in today’s first reading. St. Paul concludes his sermon with a reference to St. John the Baptist’s words, Behold, there cometh one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose (Acts 13:25, cf. John 1:27). As we consider these words more carefully, we will recognize that this is a subtle reference to the Law of Moses – and we realize that, in unexpected ways, the Old Testament often shines much light on the New.
Whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten
St. John the Baptist, in claiming that he is unworthy even to unfasten the sandal of the feet of our Lord, directs his followers and critics to look more intently to Jesus (who had not yet revealed himself in his baptism). Rather than laying claim to popular opinion and falsely presenting himself as the Messiah, St. John confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ (John 1:20). The Baptist always pointed his followers to Christ, and he called his critics to repentance so that they might not be destroyed but might instead find grace in the Savior.
When he tells them that he is not worthy to loose the sandal strap of the Messiah, St. John means to say that he is not only not the Messiah, but he is not even worthy to be the servant of the Messiah. On this point, St. Thomas Aquinas writes of St. John: “He touches on the greatness of Christ’s superiority when he says, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten. As if to say: You must not suppose the he ranks ahead of me in dignity in the way that one man is placed ahead of another, rather he is ranked so far above me that I am nothing in comparison to him. And this is clear from the fact that it is he the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten, which is the least service that can be done for men.” (Commentary on John I.13)
The Levirate Law, and the symbolic use of a sandal
We have seen the strict and direct literal sense of the words of the Baptist, but it is quite likely that he intends also an analogy as well. The mention of the removal of a sandal is meant to recall the Levirate Law and the symbolic meaning of this action in the Old Covenant. Here, we will see that one fails to understand the New Testament if he does not know also the Old – as St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
First, consider the Levirate Law as it was expressed in Deuteronomy 25. In that place, Moses tells the people that, if one brother dies and leaves a wife without any children, the other brother is to marry that woman and provide his dead brother with a prodigy [in truth, the Levirate Law is more complicated than this, but we have said enough].
But if he will not take his brother's wife, who by law belongeth to him, the woman shall go to the gate of the city, and call upon the ancients, and say: My husband's brother refuseth to raise up his brother's name in Israel: and will not take me to wife. And they shall cause him to be sent for forthwith, and shall ask him. If he answer: I will not take her to wife: The woman shall come to him before the ancients, and shall take off his shoe from his foot, and spit in his face, and say: So shall it be done to the man that will not build up his brother's house: And his name shall be called in Israel, the house of the unshod. (Deuteronomy 25:7-10)
If a man refused to perform his duty according to the Levirate Law, rejecting his deceased brother’s widow, the woman was to remove his sandal and spit in his face. Notice: The removal of the sandal (or of the shoe) is the symbolic sign of the failing of the marriage duty, the sandal is loosed to symbolize that marriage bond is broken off.
In a slightly different form, the removal of a sandal is used to symbolize the breaking of another marriage bond at the end of the book of Ruth: Now this in former times was the manner in Israel between kinsmen, that if at any time one yielded his right to another: that the grant might be sure, the man put off his shoe, and gave it to his neighhour; this was a testimony of cession of right in Israel. So Booz said to his kinsman: Put off thy shoe. And immediately he took it off from his foot. And he said to the ancients and to all the people: You are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech's, and Chelion's, and Mahalon's, of the hand of Noemi: And have taken to wife Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahalon, to raise up the name of the deceased in his inheritance lest his name be cut off, from among his family and his brethren and his people. You, I say, are witnesses of this thing. (Ruth 4:7-10)
Though the practices described in Deuteronomy and in Ruth seem to be slightly different, the central point remains: When the man’s shoe or sandal is loosed from his foot, he has symbolically refused to take the woman as his bride.
St. John the Baptist: The friend of the bridegroom
This symbolic action from the Old Testament – loosening the sandal or shoe – has been used by many Fathers and Doctors as a means of interpreting the words of the Baptist. Consider St. Thomas Aquinas’ commentary (which seems to have a slightly incorrect understanding of Deuteronomy 25, but nevertheless clearly connects the Levirate Law with the words of the Forerunner).
“It is explained in another way by recalling that it was ordered in the Old Law that when a man died without children, his brother was obligated to marry the wife of the dead man and raise up children from her as his brother’s. And if he refused to marry her, then a close relative of the dead man, if willing to marry her, was to remove the sandals of the dead man as a sign of this willingness and marry her; and his home was then to be called the home of the man whose sandals were removed (Dt 25:5). And so according to this he says, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten, i.e., I am not worthy to have the bride, that is, the Church, to which Christ has a right. As if to say: I am not worthy to be called the bridegroom of the Church, which is consecrated to Christ in the baptism of the Spirit; but I baptize only in water. As it says below (3:29): It is the groom who has the bride.” (Commentary on John, I.13)
In claiming that he is not worthy to loose the strap of the sandal on Christ’s foot, the Baptist affirms that Jesus is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride. Far be it from any to stand between Christ and his Church – What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Mark 10:9).
How rich in meaning are St. John’s words! Yet we would have surely missed their depth if we had not familiarized ourselves with all that has been written of Christ in the Law and the Prophets.