2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Without a doubt John the Baptist is one of the most fascinating 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 young 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 nary a man born solely of human parentage who was greater than John. There was a woman who was greater, Mary, but not a man.
We also know that the Mission given by God to John was the greatest ever given to a prophet, for John was sent to immediately 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, his faith in the word of God delivered first to him and through him to God’s people. It seems that John himself was not allowed to recognize the Messiah in Jesus, who was his very own cousin, until the moment that Jesus came down into the waters and asked John for his baptism. Whatever John 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 recognize Jesus as the Messiah until the Holy Spirit enabled him to see this truth by means of a grace of interior illumination and the external sign of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove. Only by this interior grace and exterior sign, something like a sacrament, would John at last see the real truth about his cousin Jesus, as he expresses this truth in these words:
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)
Only at that moment of Jesus’ baptism are John’s eyes opened, by faith, and only then does he actually see and recognize in his cousin the true Messiah and confess the absolute superiority of Jesus and His Mission to John himself and his mission. John recognizes that although he was in fact born before Jesus, nonetheless “he existed before me.” Indeed, Jesus did in fact exist “before” John, for Jesus’ true origin is not to be found in this world, as is true of John, for Jesus exists eternal, and He comes into this world from Eternity. That is also why John says that He “ranks ahead” of John, for Jesus not only existed “before” John in a temporal sense, but has forever existed “before” him in the sense of “above” him in a way that infinitely surpasses John’s human existence.
This stupendous truth could not possibly be deduced by John from anything about Jesus that John could know from his personal experience or reason alone. No matter how extraordinarily good or how tremendously holy Jesus would appear to John’s reason and experience, nothing except faith, illuminated by the word of God, could possibly enable him to know this astounding truth about Jesus. Jesus is God’s Holy One, who ranks of ahead of John, and above of all of creation, since Jesus is Himself the source of all things created.
Today, sadly, most people in this world continue to reject Jesus as the Son of God and the Sole Mediator of Salvation for the human race. Christians constitute only about 31% of the world’s population, and even many Christians today reject the true divinity of Christ.
Most people today, including unfortunately many Christians, see Jesus as simply a good moral teacher, but not as the God-man and not as the sole redeemer of all mankind. Some may look at Jesus as a kind of savior for Christians, but not as the universal savior of mankind. Indeed today many half-Christians, who think of themselves as more broad minded than the rest of the Church, would say that non-Christians have their own path to Heaven which in no way depends upon Jesus.
This would not be true for John the Baptist who comes to recognize Jesus as the Savior of mankind, for he says to his disciples that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Until the Baptism of Jesus, John could not yet see this, but he had a deep faith open to God’s word, and once he was given both the external witness of the Spirit and the Father, and the interior illumination of grace, John believed, and knew at once that his own mission was accomplished in directing his disciples to follow Jesus.
The fact is that no one can come to know the true identity of Jesus Christ without the gift of faith, an external witness of preaching of the Gospel and the interior illumination of the grace of Father through the Holy Spirit. “No one can come to me,” said Jesus, “unless the Father draws him.” John had faith all along, but the Father had not yet drawn him to the full truth through the witness of the Spirit, which is through an external word, the Gospel preached, and the interior illumination of grace which enables faith to assent to this stupendous mystery.
This same process of faith is seen today where we have the external revelation concerning the truth of Jesus Christ, in both Scripture and Sacred Tradition handed down by Christ’s Church, and the interior grace illuminating faith. But most men today are not like John the Baptist and do not seem to have the necessary receptivity of faith to assent to this truth. Indeed, even many Christians no longer seem to have the necessary openness of faith to accept revelation and to recognize Christ as the Messiah and the ineffable Son of God.
There are many ways in which we can see this mystery of faith working itself out in our lives. John failed to recognize the Messiah in Jesus, because his faith was not yet sufficiently informed by the Holy Spirit in this regard. By our Baptism, we were all given the grace, the illumination as some early Christians referred to Baptism itself, to recognize Jesus as the Son of God still at work in our world. Indeed, Jesus tells us that our faith should enable us even to recognize Him in every human person, for did He not say, “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 ….” Thus, 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, made in image and likeness.
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/our brothers and sisters in this world. Yet, how often we fail to see Him even in the people closest to us, let alone in those 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 as man to redeem all mankind and thereby has truly identified himself with every human person who is the object of His redemptive love. Thus, with the eyes of faith, Christ can be seen all around us. Believing in Jesus as God’s Son enables us to understand that He came not only to restore our peace and friendship with the Father, but at the same time, that He came to restore our peace and friendship with every human 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 grow in faith and we cannot be at peace with God, then, if we fail to believe and see Christ in our neighbors, and fail to treat our neighbors as Christ would have us. We simply can never be fully at peace with our neighbors without faith and God’s grace. Yet with God’s grace, we can even be at peace with the neighbor who is not at all at peace with us, who perhaps hates us, or 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 the Christ and to proclaim the Christ to His people. He spent that time in radical self-denial, so that he would not be so obstructed by himself, by any sinful self-absorption, that he would not have the faith to be able to recognize the Christ.
But we too have a mission from Jesus. We are called to recognize Him as God, to believe and worship Him in the Eucharist, 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 great 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 the mission given us by Christ.
If we fail to recognize Christ today, it’s probably 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 Church, in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and 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 and serve each other, “Now I have seen, and I testify that This is the Son of God” … “Now He must increase and I must decrease.”