2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” (John 1)
Without a doubt John the Baptist is one of the most intriguing persons found in the whole New Testament. We know that John was the cousin of Our Lord and that, according to the Angel Gabriel, John was born about six months before Jesus. The Gospel also tells us that John was consecrated to God from his birth and that he spent much of his early life in the desert preparing himself by means of a life of rigorous asceticism and self-denial for the mission that God had given him. Jesus Himself informs us that John was the greatest of the prophets sent by God, and that there was no man born solely of human parentage who was greater than John. There was a woman who was greater, Mary, but not a man.
The Mission given to John by God was the greatest mission ever given to a prophet, for John was sent to prepare God’s people to receive their Messiah and Lord and to actually announce his arrival when at last He made his appearance. Moreover, John had to fulfill his mission in the twilight of faith, faith in the word of God delivered first to him and through him to God’s people. John evidently was not allowed to recognize the Messiah in Jesus, who was his very own cousin, for all those years of the maturing of his vocation, until the moment that Jesus came down into the waters and asked John for his baptism. Whatever he might have thought about Jesus, and surely John must have known of his extraordinary goodness and holiness – that alone would explain why he suggested that he should rather be baptized by Jesus – nonetheless John could not see that he was the Messiah until the Holy Spirit enabled him to see with the a grace of interior illumination the sign that would identify the Messiah to him, that the Holy Spirit would descend upon the Messiah in the form of a dove. That day John saw with this interior vision of faith, illuminated by the Spirit, this confirming sign of the Spirit resting upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
Only at that moment are John’s interior eyes opened, by faith, and only then does he actually see and recognize the Messiah in his cousin and the absolute superiority of Jesus and His Mission to John and his mission. John recognizes that although he was in fact born before Jesus, Jesus in fact had has existed before John, that his true origin is not of this world as is John’s, but that Jesus comes into this world from eternity, and therefore ranks ahead of John because he not only existed before John but in a way utterly transcendent to John’s existence.
This great truth could not possibly be deduced from anything about Jesus that John could know from his reason alone. No matter how extraordinarily good or how tremendously holy Jesus might appear to John’s reason and experience, nothing but faith illuminated by the word of God could enable him to know this astounding truth about Jesus, that he was God’s Holy One, who ranks of ahead of John and ahead of all creation, because He was before John or any other mere man, born of woman and was the source of all things created.
Today people continue to reject Jesus as the Son of God and the Sole Mediator of Salvation to the human race. They look at Jesus, perhaps the way John did before the Baptism in the Jordan, that is, they look at Jesus and the Scriptures without any faith, the gift necessary to receive the assistance of the Holy Spirit, operating through the receptacle of faith. Unbelievers try to evaluate or judge Jesus Christ solely by the light of their own reason, and even if they see him as a good and admirable human being, they cannot by this means alone recognize that he much greater than simply a good and holy man.
This was definitely not the situation with John, who actually possessed a deep faith but had not yet been given the illumination and the evidence promised by the Spirit. But John was ready when the Spirit finally moved him. No one can recognize the true identity of Jesus Christ without the gift of faith and the interior revelation of the Father through the Holy Spirit. “No one can come to me, said Jesus, unless the Father draw him.” John had faith but the Father had not yet drawn him to the truth through the Spirit. Today we have the revelation concerning the truth of Jesus Christ in both Scripture and the Sacred Tradition handed down by Christ’s Church. But do we have the faith to receive this truth? Today, sadly, many no longer have the faith to accept revelation and to recognize Christ as the Messiah and the ineffable Son of God.
We can apply this mystery to ourselves in many ways. John failed to recognize the Messiah in Jesus, because his faith was not yet sufficiently informed by the Holy Spirit in this regard. Jesus tells us that our faith should enable us to see Him in every human person – “whatever you do for the least of my brethren, you do it for me, whatever you fail to do for the least of my brethren ….” Jesus has revealed to us the truth that having become one of us, he is now so identified with the whole human race, that we must come to see him in every human being. But of course we must have sufficient faith to truly believe what he says, and sufficient illumination of this faith to be able to recognize Jesus in every one of his brothers and sisters in this world. Yet, how often we fail to see Him even in the people near to us, all around us, the good and the bad, the strong and the week, the friend and the enemy.
It is clear from the Scriptures and Church teaching that Christ came to redeem all mankind and so truly identified himself with every human person that, to the eyes of faith, Christ can be seen all around us. Christ came to restore not only our peace and friendship with the Father, which had been destroyed and wounded by sin, but at the same time He came to restore our peace and friendship with every person, made in His image and likeness and called, like us, to become a child of the one Father and God of us all. We cannot be at peace with God, if we are not at peace with our neighbors, and we can be at peace with our neighbors without God’s grace. Yet with God’s grace we can be at peace even with the neighbor who is not at all at peace with us, who hates us, even despises us. What kind of faith does it take to recognize Christ in such an enemy, what kind of grace does it take to be at peace in these circumstances? And to be honest, how often do we fail to recognize Christ even in our friends!
John spent a very long time in the desert preparing himself for his mission and to recognize Christ and proclaim Christ to His people. He spent that time in radical self-denial, so that he would not be so obstructed by himself, by sinful self-absorption, that he would not be able to recognize the Christ. We too have a mission from Jesus,. We are called to recognize Him in the Eucharist, and so to worship him, but also to recognize Him in our brother and sister, and to love and serve Him in our brother and sister. Anyone who thinks that this mission does not require a life of self-denial and self-emptying, as we see in the life of John, simply does not understand the difficulty of their mission from Christ. We fail to recognize Christ today not because we have no faith, but because we have too little faith and too much self-love. That is why Christ warned us that if we would really be His follower, then we must be willing to go to the desert, to pick up our daily cross and follow Him. Then, and only then will we be able to recognize Christ in the world we live in, and then and only then will we be able to say as John did, by the way we love each other, “Now I have seen for myself …This is God’s Chosen One.”