by Br Julian McDonald cfc
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and said: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1: 29-34
Early in his Gospel, John the Evangelist underlined the link-role played by John the Baptist in connecting the First (Old) Testament with the New. The Gospel writer presented the Baptist as the last of a long line of Prophets to identify Jesus as the Messiah. Prominent among First Testament Prophets to point to Jesus as Messiah and the circumstances of his birth were Isaiah and Micah, who featured in the recent Advent-Christmas readings. It was the sight of Jesus, with God’s Spirit hovering over his head in the form of a dove, which confirmed for the Baptist that this man was, indeed, the long-awaited Messiah, the Chosen One of God.
However, in the course of affirming Jesus as Messiah, the Baptist included the unexpected statement about Jesus: “I did not know him myself, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water” (John 1: 31). Very soon afterwards, the Baptist repeated his assertion: “And I myself did not know him.” (John 1: 33). The repetition of that statement puzzled me until I discovered that there had existed among the Jewish people a long-standing tradition that, when the Messiah eventually appeared, he would, for some time, remain hidden from people’s awareness. Supporting this is the text of John’s Gospel which suggests that the Baptist did not immediately see God’s Spirit hovering over Jesus. The Gospel writer noted that the Baptist mentioned the presence of God’s Spirit hovering over Jesus only in the second part of his declaration.
Also supporting the tradition of a hidden Messiah is the response Jesus gave to his cousin John when, on presenting himself for baptism, John asserted that it was more appropriate for him to be presenting himself to Jesus for baptism. That exchange between the two of them is recorded in the extract from Matthew’s Gospel which was proclaimed on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus just a few days ago: “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John tried to dissuade him: ‘It is I who need baptism from you’, he said, ‘and yet you come to me!’ But Jesus replied: ’Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.’ At this, John gave in to him.” (Matthew 2: 13-15)
At the same time, the Messiah was also expected to be a powerful agent of God’s presence in the world. John the Baptist clearly signalled that when he referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God. That was no reference to the cuddly, woolly-coated lambs we might think of holding in our arms or feeding with a bottle of warm milk. The expression used by the Baptist referred to a huge lamb-like figure who would set about ridding the world of its sin.
The Gospel accounts from John and Matthew of Jesus’ initiation into his public ministry as Messiah give us the picture of someone who was, by tradition, expected to be inconspicuous and, at the same time meant to be an agent of the powerful Spirit of God, bringing liberation and hope to a world in the grip of injustice and oppression.
What relevance, if any, does this have for us two thousand years after Jesus appeared in our world as the unheralded Messiah and Christ of God? Having been born into and grown up in Jewish society, Jesus was influenced by traditions that had prevailed for centuries. That was part and parcel of the limitations that came with culture and tradition. Such limitations carried over into what eventually morphed into what we now call Christianity. Pious practice, even in the youthful days of many who read these weekly reflections, promoted what was called “the hidden life” and offered it as a proven way to sanctity. One of the models presented to us was Therese of Lisieux (commonly know as the Little Flower), who exemplified living without seeking notoriety but being faithful to doing the very ordinary things of life to perfection. Novice directors in Religious Congregations across the Catholic Church instructed their charges not to seek notoriety, not to express their gifts and talents in ways that would distinguish them as more creative, more intelligent or even more ambitious than their peers. Any who ventured into writing articles on Scripture, theology or spirituality were directed by religious superiors to refrain from naming themselves as the author of such articles but merely to identify themselves as “a Mercy Sister” or “a Christian Brother” or “a Benedictine monk”. Lay people were exhorted to remain locked into violent and abusive marriages in the name of fidelity. Obscurity, living in destructive relationships and keeping one’s talents or genius under wraps were seen as virtuous, being faithful to the common life or somehow giving honour to God who is the very source of our individual gifts and talents and who surely wants us to live free and to honour the gifts with which we have been blessed. Humility is about recognising and accepting the truth about ourselves and living it responsibly, not about pretending that we are less than we really are.
However, we might need to readjust our thinking here and interpret differently what was presented to us as “the hidden life”. The Gospel writers might instead be challenging us to learn to live with the fact that there will be times in our lives when our successes and accomplishments go without recognition, when we don’t get the credit we deserve. Maybe, we have to learn to acknowledge that it is painful to have to accept that our best efforts sometimes go unnoticed and unappreciated by those from who we expected at least some acknowledgement. When that happens, we can begin to question our own effectiveness and even lose self-confidence.
At the very least, today’s gospel-reading gives us a hint that even Jesus had to make his way through the years of his public ministry not only without due recognition but with hostile criticism from religious leaders who flatly discredited all the good things he did. The only source of consolation available to him was his faith in God, and the occasional word of appreciation offered by his closest followers. What’s more, we all know that there have been times in our lives when God’s Spirit has hovered over us invisibly, yet felt inwardly, prompting us to act for justice or to reach out to others in compassion or encouragement or challenge, and the only consolation we have felt is that we have been faithful to the Spirit’s urgings, without anyone close to us having the slightest notion.
Sometimes, it’s no easy thing to live with integrity, to live true to the urgings of God’s Spirit, especially when those close to us don’t even notice.