Words on the Word
2. Sunday A
Isaiah 49:3, 5-6: He formed me in the womb to be his servant.
1 Corinthians 1:1-3: Paul, appointed by God to be an apostle.
John 1:29-34: I did not know him myself.
‘No’, says John the Baptist in today’s Gospel, ‘I did not know him.’ Indeed he says it twice, referring to Jesus’s apparition in Bethany, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptising.
How are we to understand this statement? Surely if anyone knew Jesus, John did?
In Luke we read how Mary, shortly after Christ’s conception, went off to visit Elisabeth, her kinswoman, likewise pregnant. When Mary arrived, and Elisabeth heard her voice, her baby ‘skipped in her womb’. To describe the reaction of John, still unborn, Luke uses a verb with deep Biblical resonance. We find it again in the Psalm (Ps 114) which begins with the words: ‘When Israel went forth from Egypt’. This Psalm is one of the Old Testament’s fundamental accounts of redemption. It tells us how the whole of creation rejoiced when Israel cast off Egypt’s yoke: ‘The sea saw it and fled; Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams.’ That is how the Precursor skipped in the embryonic presence of Jesus. He knew, before he had seen the light of day, who the Redeemer was. At this he rejoiced.
How, then, could he say, thirty years on, ‘I knew him not’?
Of course, we could explain this business away by saying simply that we’re dealing with two different sources. The text we have read is John’s; the one about Mary and Elisabeth is Luke’s. Two traditions; two versions of the relationship between Jesus and the Baptist. Perhaps John didn’t have Luke’s text at his disposal? Or perhaps Luke just invented the story of the meeting of the unborn to make his text more lively? In this way exegetes have argued for the past few decades in voluminous, often very dull commentaries. Thank God, we have made a bit of progress. We have passed beyond the certainty that we, blessed with all sorts of critical skills, see everything more clearly than Christians have done for the past two thousand years; that we are the first to pinpoint challenges arisings from attempts to reconcile Biblical texts — and therefore have a licence to bracket these awkwardnesses or simply to dismiss as invention what we do not understand.
As I have said, this approach to the Bible is no longer permissible. We must confront challenges. We must take the text, as it stands, seriously. This is more demanding, but also a lot more interesting.
So let us consider John’s statement again. Let us note this, first of all: when he designates Jesus as the Lamb of God, he does not say, ‘I never set eyes on this fellow before’. He says, ‘I knew him not’. Who among us has not experienced that one whom we have known for years suddenly reveals a new side of himself or herself and we are forced to admit: ‘I thought I knew him (or her); but I now see I did not.’ There can be many reasons for such a development. Perhaps our friend, or our spouse for that matter, has been battling with some heavy thing they have not shared with us, whether to spare us concern or themselves humiliation. Once our eyes are opened to what the other has carried secretly, we need to read our common history afresh. Everything appears in a different light. Certain things we’ve never understood are at once obvious. Other things, that seemed straightforward, pose big questions. We ascertain: ‘I knew him (or her) not.’
The question is whether, at this point, we are ready to enlarge our knowledge, to integrate the new thing we have learnt in a deeper, more truthful relationship; or whether, on the contrary, we hold on to what we thought was an adequate image of the other. In the latter case, our relationship, if it survives, will be built on an illusion. We shan’t be relating to another human being, but to our notion of what that human being ought to have been.
If we consider the relationship between Jesus and John in these terms, a lot becomes clear. John’s apparently paradoxical affirmation, ‘I knew him not’, makes sense. The Gospel shows us again and again what the Jewish people expected from God’s redemption. People hoped that the Lord, as in the days of Moses, would show his mighty arm, crush enemies, cleanse the Promised Land, and let each true Israelite enjoy his inheritance under his vine and fig tree. This is a hope John will have shared. It will have been impressed on his very being. That is why he skipped for joy, like the mountains at Israel’s exodus, when the Son of God was incarnate. John’s whole life was directed towards the freeing of Israel.
But what was it he saw when Jesus at last manifested himself publicly? Not a sceptred warrior making of his enemies a footstool, but, precisely, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ — who takes sin away by assuming it and carrying it. The Lamb says to us, ‘My burden is light’; and he bids us, ‘Bear my burden with me’.
We may ask ourselves: Do I choose to know Jesus, the Lamb of God, as he lets himself be known, or do I nurture an image of him born of my own fancy? The Lord meets us here, in the sacred mysteries. The mysteries make the Lamb’s sacrifice present and draw us into that sacrifice. Let us, then, ask for grace to see him as he is, to enter his broad and spacious joy, and not to stay hanging around outside, enclosed in our own, all too narrow expectations.
In Murillo’s engaging painting, now in London’s National Gallery, the Forerunner knew Jesus as Lamb of God already as a child. In St John’s account the realisation seems to have come later, and at the cost of some perplexity.