“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.”
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.”
“Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples; And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.”
The narrative world of the Gospel opens with the dialogue between the Baptist and the crowd around him. We immediately sense tension in his exchange with one particular crowd within the crowd. Later on we learn they were there on a fact-finding mission on behalf the Pharisees in Jerusalem. They were there we can assume entirely because of the attention the Baptist was getting from the common folk. John was a rockstar. Whether or not their intentions were wholesome, I cannot tell. But there is agitation in this scene. What were John’s claims about himself? By what authority did he baptize anyone? The Pharisees knew nothing about Jesus at this point, mainly because Jesus was largely unknown, except of course for our Lady, the Theotokos and his cousin, John the Baptist.
But we know a great deal about Jesus. We and all other Christians who had read or had read to them this Gospel. We know his full identity because we have insider information. We know he is the Christ and we know that he is more than the Christ because he is the “Light which lightens every man that comes into the world.” And we have already been informed by the Evangelist that the Baptist was “not that Light, but came to bear witness of that Light.” And then to clarify, to settle the matter of the Baptist’s identity once and for all, the Evangelist quotes his final, unconditional response to his inquisitors:
“And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.”
So once we get into its narrative world the Gospel takes off first with the focus on John the Baptist, but finally all we care about is Jesus and where he is going and what he is doing. Also note that the Baptist’s mission of preaching and baptizing in the Jordan is identified to have been for the specific purpose of revealing Jesus the Messiah to Israel:
“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.”
And the Baptist’s mission of introducing Jesus the Messiah to Israel is accomplished specifically and concretely as Jesus is introduced to two his future Apostles. Furthermore the Baptist is clear that he did not know Jesus, his cousin, to be the Messiah through any merely human manner. That is his meaning when he says more than once: “I did not know him,” by which he meant, he did not know his cousin to be the Light of the world. Though it is true that John while still in his mother’s womb responded to the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary as well as the unborn Jesus Christ still in her womb, but that is a different matter. And it is clear that John did not build upon that experience as he grew into what we might call responsible adulthood. Whatever he thought about his cousin, Jesus, as they interacted and matured, it certainly was not that he was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The point I am making is that John did not grasp Jesus’ full identity through an insight he achieved by being attentive to Jesus. Nor did John the Baptist have a “John the Baptist” who took him by the arm, pointed to Jesus and said, “this is the One.” He makes it perfectly clear to his own disciples who were hanging on his every word that his knowledge of Jesus came straight from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:
“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
The Baptist is perfectly clear that his knowledge of Jesus as the Messiah came straight from God the Father without any mediator. “He who sent me to baptize with water said to me…” Furthermore it is important to mark the fact that the Baptist had to point to Jesus and declare his identity for his disciples to know him. Why is that so important? It is important because we know who Jesus is; we know “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” is also God Almighty. We know that the same Jesus who stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by John is God Almighty in the flesh. And so it is important for us to see that the Word made Flesh was indeed really made flesh; he became a real human being with all the wonder and the limitations common to every other human being who has ever lived.
“And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John did not mean by that God adopted Jesus because he was such a good man, but rather he “is the Son of God” because he is the Word of the Father who has come to us from the very bosom of the Father. Jesus is the Father’s interior Word who created all that is, the “true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,” the One who has come to baptize not with water but to baptize with the Holy Spirit. This young man is the Word of the Father made flesh, and here is the point I want you to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest — Jesus is not walking a foot off the ground, the Shekinah glory is not beaming from his face, flowers are not bursting into blossom as he walks by. He is a real human being who had lived in and around Nazareth for thirty-some-years, and even his cousin did not know who he was until the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob pointed him out to John the Baptist as the One he was to introduce to Israel.
This helps us grasp how and why Jesus is frequently thought of as the Great Sacrament, the Original Sacrament himself. He is the source and the pattern of all the other sacraments of the Church. He is known both outwardly and visibly as well as inwardly and spiritually. Outwardly we can see, everyone standing around the Jordan that day, if they were attentive, could have seen this man of flesh and blood who obviously made the decision to submit himself to John to be baptized. But the intended audience of the Gospel of John also knows that the interior life of this man, what we call the Person of Jesus, is the Word of the Father, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. But looking at Jesus, even taking a really good look at Jesus, you would never in a million years have guessed that he was your Creator. To look upon him, to behold him, as John declared was to see a man of tender human flesh, a man who could be bruised, a man who could be smitten, a man whose flesh was as soft and contingent as your flesh, flesh that could be thrashed and flagellated; flesh as fragile as his Mother’s flesh. And besides all that, Jesus’ flesh, the flesh of God, was not particularly noteworthy one way or the other.
But John was decisive. It is a though he stopped everything and took his two young disciples by the arm and then he points to another very average looking young man walking along the bank of the Jordan and he says: “This is the Man from Heaven. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. That man , right there, is the Son of God.” Our Lord is Truth. He is Truth inside and out. His outward and visible reality is a human being, a young Jewish man. That is reality. His personal, interior, invisible reality is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That too is reality. His outward and visible reality is the son of Mary. His interior, invisible reality is the Word of the Father, the Creator, true God. And both are real and both are real forever. And here the final point for us in Holy Mother Church: what is true for Jesus the Messiah is true for the Sacrament of the Altar: the outward reality is bread and wine — true bread and true wine; the interior, invisible reality is the true flesh and true blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The same is true for Holy Baptism: the outward, visible, and audible reality is water, salt, and the words of Jesus, while the invisible reality is the new birth of a Child of God. The same is true for Holy Matrimony: the outward and visible realities are the joining of hands of one man and one woman, the words spoken and the ring given, while the interior, invisible reality is the creation of a new state of being that God, from the very beginning, calls “one flesh.” Here is the point I am making: the man and the woman can be made one flesh, the baby can be born again as God’s child, and bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ because we participate in the reality of the Great Sacrament of the Person of Jesus Christ. Because we have been grafted into Jesus’ human and divine life, his life has been infused into our lives severally and individually. Our participation in the life of God begins with our incorporation into the human nature of Jesus Christ through Holy Baptism. And once incorporated we are nurtured in the Church as we appropriate the other sacraments especially the Holy Communion. I have said this often and I want to hold on to it: Grace perfects nature, grace perfects human nature, grace does not annihilate human nature and that divine principle shined the brightest when the Word was made Flesh. And this brings us back into the narrative world of the Gospel of John, the autobiography of God made Flesh. This is the life-story of Jesus; the tale told that we may know Jesus is God and we may know what it means to be his siblings, true children of the Father who loves us. So next week: on with the story !
“And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God! And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.”