I did not know him …
The context for these words is not crystal clear when we hear them read at Mass. We are used to the stories in the first three Gospels, the Synoptics, that tell of John baptizing Jesus. We also have heard that the mothers of Jesus and John are cousins, so we expect that the boys would have known each other while they were growing up. But these assumptions aren’t necessarily correct. They come from our perspective as people from a culture in which kinship is established through the lines of both our fathers and our mothers. This was not the case in Jesus’ culture. One’s mother had to be Jewish for a child to be born a Jew, but kinship was established through the father’s line. Also, one child grew up near Jerusalem while the other grew up in Nazareth, several days’ journey to the north.
John the Evangelist, in his Gospel, also tells us about Jesus and John the Baptist, but this story has a different focus. (Jn 1:29-34) In the section of the Gospel that comes just before John identifies Jesus to his own disciples as the Lamb of God, John has been speaking with those who came out from Jerusalem to find out what the heck he was doing and to ask who was he to be doing it! That is one of the readings we typically hear in Advent liturgies. As we enter into Ordinary Time (that is to say, Counted Time), we hear the rest of the story.
John breaks his account of Jesus’ life into two books: The Book of Signs and The Book of Glory. Just before the Book of Signs, we find the Prologue, with its famous line, “In the beginning was the Word.” This is a new beginning of the history of the relationship between God and creation. Just as in Genesis, “In the beginning …” The Prologue summarizes the themes of the entire Gospel and notes that John came ahead to testify to the light so that others might believe when his identity became known.
The Book of Signs presents key events in the life of Jesus that point to his divine origin. Thus, the Book of Signs picks up the story with John’s testimony to those from Jerusalem: “There is one among you whom you do not recognize – the one who is to come after me..” The very next day, as Jesus came towards him, John suddenly exclaimed to those around him: “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … I did not know him …”
In the Synoptic Gospels, written by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are told that John baptized Jesus. In Matthew’s account, John demurs, but Jesus insists that they do it that way. Immediately afterwards, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove and the words, “This is my beloved son” are heard coming from the heavens. John the Evangelist also speaks of this event, but with a different focus and in more detail. In his account, John the Baptist declares a second time, “I did not know him.” It was only when “the one who sent me to baptize with water told me” that the descent of the Spirit like a dove from heaven would be the sign of the chosen Servant or Son of God that he was able to recognize Jesus as the one.
John the Baptist immediately testified to what he had seen, telling his disciples that this man was the one, the long-awaited Lamb of God.
Isaiah also spoke of one or ones who would be Servants (or Sons) of God. (Is 49:3, 5-6) The terms were used interchangeably. These were ones called by God from among the people to be faithful to the covenant and lead their nation back to a right relationship with God as their nation was rebuilt. The rulers were not necessarily going to be the ones who would do it right. Yet God would call people from among the community and through them Jerusalem and her people would become a light to the nations and salvation would reach to the ends of the earth.
Paul too makes it clear in his greeting to the people of Corinth (1 Cor 1:1-3) among whom he had lived for over a year, that all of them, Jews and Gentiles alike, had been called to holiness in Jesus. To them and to us comes his greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today, I invite you to pray with me for the grace to see God’s servants among those I meet each day. In seeing ordinary folks who are living witnesses to love and grace and forgiveness in their lives, we begin to see the face of the Son of God among us as well. We don’t always recognize him. It’s way too easy to get focused on our tasks and responsibilities, our concerns and our worries. Yet he is there among us, day to day, in the middle of it all. At the grocery store. At school. At the office. Walking along the beach. Playing in a puddle. Helping someone shovel water out of a flooded home. All the many activities of our lives.
“I did not know him…” With God’s help and prompting, may we say with John, “Now I have seen and testified …” The Son of God is here with us now.
Readings for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle A