2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
“I did not know him.”
How strange that John should say this. After all, Jesus was his cousin and the families were obviously close as we can see from Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. John had to “know” Jesus to some degree, but what then does he mean by this statement? And how does this fact affect us in our relationship to the Lord?
Certainly John the Baptist is one of the most interesting figures found anywhere in the Bible. We know that John was indeed the cousin of Our Lord and was born about 6 months before Him. The bible also tell us that John was consecrated to God at his birth, and that he spent much of his young life in the desert, preparing himself by a life of rigorous asceticism and self-denial for the unique mission that God had called him to fulfill. Jesus Himself testifies that John was the greatest of the prophets and that there never was a man born solely of woman that was greater than John.
The Church teaches that the vocation given to John was the greatest mission ever given to a prophet, for John was sent to immediately prepare God’s people to receive their Messiah and Lord, and then to actually announce his arrival when at last He made his appearance. And all of this John had to accomplish in the darkness of faith, his faith in the Word of God which directed his whole life. Yet it is evident that all John’s preparation, all his prayer and asceticism was not enough to enable John to actually recognize the Messiah in Jesus. During all those early years, right up to the moment that Jesus came down into the waters and asked for Baptism. John did not “know him,” that is, he did not know that Jesus was the chosen one. Whatever he might have thought about Jesus, and surely John must have known his cousin’s extraordinary holiness, Still He did not “know him.” That he knew the extraordinary holiness of Jesus is apparent when John hesitates to baptize the Lord. Rather John stated that he should be baptized by Jesus not the other way around. And yet John still cannot be sure that Jesus is indeed the Messiah until the Holy Spirit reveals this truth and enables John to see with the gift of faith the sign that the Spirit says will identify the Messiah – the Holy Spirit resting upon the chosen one in the form of a dove.
On that day, John witnessed the Holy Spirit resting upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and only then, with an interior illumination of the gift of faith, can he confess, “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” Only under the influence of this special gift of the Spirit are John’s eyes opened, that is, the eyes of his faith, and only then does he recognize in his cousin the Messiah, and the utterly transcendent person whom he is baptizing, “he is the Son fo God.” Jesus is not merely superior to John on the level of human nature, but is absolute superior to all mankind because He is the Lord, the Kyrios who surpasses all creation.
John now believes that although he was born before Jesus, that Jesus existed before he did, that his 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 is before John is. John also knows by faith that this transcendent Lord likewise has a mission that infinitely surpasses his own. John testifies to this earlier when he says, “I baptize with water,” said John to the people, “but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit. So in today’s Gospel John gladly sends his disciples after Jesus. John testifies again that Jesus must now increase, while John must decrease, and soon he will be arrested and martyred by Herod in prison
In every age, including our own, most people will reject Jesus as the Son of God and the Sole Mediator of Salvation to the human race. At best, unbelievers may perhaps look at Jesus in same the way John did before the Baptism in the Jordan. That is, they may praise Jesus as a holy man, but they stop there for they are looking at Jesus and the Scriptures with reason alone. Rejecting the assistance of the Holy Spirit, who operates through the gift of faith, they cannot say with John, He is the Son of God. Anyone who tries to evaluate or judge Jesus Christ solely by the light of their own reason and human experience is doomed to remain in the dark. Even John himself, who had a deep faith, prior to that day in the Jordan, when he accepted the light of the Spirit and thus the evidence promised by the Spirit, “did not know him.” The fact is, no one can recognize the true identity of Jesus Christ without the gift of faith and without the actual 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 revelation of the Spirit.
Contrariwise, today the whole world has access to the revelation concerning the truth of Jesus Christ in both Scripture and the Sacred Tradition handed down by Christ’s Church. But today even many Christians no longer have the faith to accept revelation and recognize Christ as the messiah and ineffable Son of God. The gift of faith is offered to all men, but it seems that few accept this gift and find their way to Christ.
We can apply this mystery to ourselves in many ways. John failed to recognize the Messiah in Jesus, because his faith was not yet informed by the Holy Spirit in this regard. Jesus has told us that our faith will enable us to see him, identify 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 this astounding truth, that having become one of us, he is now mysteriously identified Himself with the whole human race, and thus we can and must see him in every human person, but only if our faith is alive. We must have a living faith, a faith informed by Love, to believe what he says, and this faith in his word is the only means we have to recognize Jesus in every one of his/our brothers and sisters in this world. But how often we even fail to see him in the people right around us, the good and the bad, the strong and the week, the friend and the enemy.
It is clear that Christ came to redeem all mankind, and so identified himself with every human person, that to the eyes of faith, Christ will be seen not only and most especially in the Eucharist, but all around us. Christ came to restore not only our peace and friendship with the Father, destroyed and wounded by our sins, but at the same time to restore our peace and friendship with every person, made in His image and likeness. Every person is called, like us, to become a child of the Heavenly Father and a brother or sister to Christ. This recognition of Christ in our neighbors is not an optional thing for we cannot be at peace with God, in union with God, if we are not at peace with our brother. In Jesus and His Spirit we can be at peace with our brother, even if our brother is not at peace with us, even hates us, despises us. What kind of faith does it take to recognize Christ in such an enemy? Yet how often we fail to recognize Christ even in our friends!
John spent a very long time in the desert preparing himself for his mission, first to recognize the Christ when the Spirit would reveal Him, and then to proclaim Christ to His people. He spent that time in radical self-denial, so that he would not be so consumed and obstructed by himself, that he would be incapable of recognizing Christ when He was revealed, and fil in his mission to reveal Him to others.
All of us have a mission from Jesus, but first we must recognize Him, in the Eucharist where we worship him, and then in our brothers and sisters. For in them we must serve Him, bearing witness to them of His love and His great desire for their salvation. But anyone who thinks this mission from Christ does not require a life of self-denial and self-emptying, as was the case with John, simply does not understand the difficulty of the mission of the Church. 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 repeatedly warned his disciples that if they would really be His follower, then they/we must be willing to go into the desert and purify our wills, to pick up our daily cross and follow Him. Love of God more than myself and my neighbor as myself, but more importantly as Christ loves us, is no easy thing. Only when we are divested of our burden of selfishness and disordered self-love will we be able to recognize Christ in the world today, and only then will we be able to say by the way we love God and each other, “Now I have seen for myself …This is truly God’s Chosen One.”