'I did not know him', says John the Baptist in today's gospel. He says it twice and yet he also points him out as the Lamb of God. In Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus, which we read last week, John knows him very well. So how are we to take these two declarations, 'I did not know him'?
They have to mean something like this: 'I needed him to be pointed out to me first so that I could point him out to you'. Or: 'I did not know the full significance and meaning of his coming'.
One can have knowledge of Jesus Christ, know about him, and this knowledge can be extensive and accurate. A person might know a lot about the Biblical titles that are given to Jesus: Messiah, Lamb of God, Servant of the Lord, Chosen One of God, Light of the Nations. It is relatively easy to gather this knowledge and to understand how these titles are used throughout the Bible, how they were developed by Christians, how they might have been used by Jesus himself.
Perhaps John means 'I did not know how he would fill and complete and expand the meaning and content of ancient prophecies and titles'. It is only from what we know already that we can move to the knowledge of something new. So even with the knowledge of these Biblical titles, there is nothing apart from the Spirit of Jesus that would enable a person to conclude from them to the fact of Jesus, his work, his identity.
We might even claim to know more than John the Baptist in knowing what Jesus himself revealed and what the Church later came to believe about Him.
'I did not know him myself' is how one translation puts it. It then seems to mean 'I did not now him by myself', or 'I did not know him out of myself'. John needed a particular help of the Holy Spirit in order to recognise Jesus. And we can put on his lips these words also: 'I did not know the full reality of His divine mystery because that would be to claim to know God'. Whatever knowledge of God we can claim to have is only had through signs and witnesses and the inner teaching of the Holy Spirit. How else could we come to 'see' not just the human being pointed out by John, Jesus from Nazareth, but who He is?
Nevertheless John pointed him out. The defendant in a courtroom is the one pointed out by witnesses, to be sure of his identity. It is a particular person that is indicated. There is a famous pointing of the finger by Jesus in Caravaggio's Call of St Matthew. John, without knowing many things about Jesus, was nevertheless the one who picked him out, presented him to society, we might say.
'I did not know him'. I did not then know his significance for my life and for the life of the world. Knowing by addition will never get me there. It is another kind of knowing that we seek, another kind of enlightenment, the knowing we call faith. All who believe can endorse what the Baptist says: 'I did not know him by myself'. A particular kind of help is needed if we are to believe. It is with other eyes that we see the One on whom the Spirit remains and from whom the Spirit is given. But coming to believe, like all ways of knowing, requires teachers, signs and God teaching within, He who is the source of our capacity to appreciate truth. All who believe in Him become children of God which means witnesses in the power of the Spirit that illuminates, clarifies and brings to light, the Spirit of truth.
You will find here another homily for today