2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, John 1:29-34
“I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’”
John the Baptist testifies that he did not know Jesus until after the baptism, when he saw the Holy Spirit come down and remain upon the Lord. But what can the Baptist possibly mean? What did he not know about Jesus? Recall, of course, that John was the second cousin of the Lord – for his mother Elizabeth was the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Could it be that the child of the visitation, who leapt in the womb in the presence of the unborn Lord, did not recognize the Messiah when he came to him as a man?
In what may be the greatest scriptural commentary of the early Church, the Tractates on John, St. Augustine discusses this very point. We will rely on him as a sure witness to the Tradition, and a guide in speculative theology.
John knew Jesus’ identity
The principle question we have is this: What did John know about Jesus before the Baptism? And, What did John come to know only after the Baptism of Christ?
Most certainly John the Baptist recognized Jesus when he saw him – Jesus was his second cousin, after all! John would most certainly have known his own relative, especially considering the close friendship of Mary and Elizabeth.
From the Scriptures themselves it is clear that John recognized who Jesus was. Even before the Baptism of our Lord, John recognized Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” (John 1:29) Moreover, when Jesus comes to John to be baptized by him, John objects saying that he himself needs to be baptized by the Lord – certainly John was able to recognize Jesus.
John knew Jesus to be the Christ
Moreover, it is clear that John not only recognized the external features of Jesus – so that he could point Jesus out of a crowd of men – but he also was moved by the Holy Spirit to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah. If John leapt in the womb when in the presence of the nascent Christ, most certainly he would be moved, by that same Spirit which had filled him from the moment Mary’s greeting reached Elizabeth’s ears, to recognize Jesus as the Christ when he saw him as a full grown man.
Again, John said, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” And again, “I ought to be baptized by thee.” (Matthew 3:14) Indeed, it is quite clear that John already knew Jesus to be the Christ, even before the Lord’s Baptism.
John had some understanding of Christ’s Divinity
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting she exclaimed, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) If Elizabeth knew Mary to be the “mother of the Lord,” then she recognized Jesus to be “the Lord.” Most certainly, Elizabeth would have told her son John, that his second cousin was the Lord – and that he was to be the forerunner of the Lord Jesus.
Again, after John’s birth, Zachariah exclaimed, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.” (Luke 1:76) John most certainly knew that he was the forerunner of the Lord. He also knew that this Lord, this most High, was his own second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth.
Finally, from John’s own words we can see that he knew Jesus to be Divine – John said, “He that shall come after me, is preferred before me: because he was before me.” (John 1:15) Now John knew that he had been conceived before Jesus (three months before) and that he had therefore been born before Jesus. If, then, John was conceived and born before Jesus (and, if he had begun his public ministry before Jesus), how can John say that Jesus was before? Here, John hints at Jesus’ divinity – for Jesus was before John not as man, but as God. Jesus was before John by virtue of his eternal generation from the Father. Here, John is testifying to the fact that Jesus is God – and all this comes before the Baptism of the Lord.
John knew that Jesus would baptize and institute a new baptism
Finally, we add that John already knew that Jesus would baptize – hence, he said, “I ought to be baptized by thee.” John had foretold, “He that shall come after me, is mightier than I, […] he shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire.” (Matthew 1:11) John knew that Jesus would institute a new baptism, a baptism not of water only, but of the Holy Spirit. John had some sense of the first sacrament of the New Law.
What John did not know about Christ Jesus
What then does John mean when he says, “I did not know him”? For he knew who Jesus was, he knew him to be Christ and even God, and he knew that the Lord would baptize in the Holy Spirit.
What John did not know about Christ, St. Augustine tells us, “But what did he not know? That this great authority of baptism the Lord himself was to have, and to retain to himself, whether present in the earth or absent in body in the heaven, and present in majesty; lest Paul should say, my baptism; lest Peter should say, my baptism. Therefore see, give heed to the words of the apostles. None of the apostles said, my baptism. […] This, then, my brethren, John learned.”
The Doctor of Grace continues, “John learns to know him whom he knew; but he learns in him with regard to what he did not know; with regard to what he did know, he does not learn. And what did he know? The Lord. What did he not know? That the power of the Lord’s baptism was not to pass from the Lord to any man, but that the ministration of it plainly would do so; the power from the Lord to no one, the ministration both to good and to bad.”
Finally, the Bishop of Hippo states, “And that which was given by Paul, and that which was given by Peter, is Christ’s; and if baptism was given by Judas it was Christ’s. […] Those whom Judas baptized, Christ baptized. In like manner, then, they whom a drunkard baptized, those whom a murderer baptized, those whom an adulterer baptized, if it was the baptism of Christ, were baptized by Christ. I do not fear the adulterer, the drunkard, or the murderer, because I give heed unto the dove, through whom it is said to me, This is he which baptizes.”
Christ Jesus is the foundation of the Church
Hence, because the value of the sacrament of baptism does not depend upon the minister of the sacrament but upon Christ by whose power the sacrament is administered, neither then does the Church depend upon the ministers of the Church but upon Christ. Most certainly, we desire and need holy priests and holy religious and holy lay persons. Indeed, we must all strive to live lives ever more closely united with the Lord. However, it is good to recall that the holiness of the Church does not come from the holiness of her members – the Church is holy because Christ is holy, the members of the Church become holy because they participate in Christ through his Church.
This is what the Donatists did not understand – for they believed that if a sinful priest administered baptism, that baptism was invalid. These heretics thought that the holiness of the Church and the power of the sacraments came from the holiness of the priests.
This heresy crops up in our own day as well – all too often we hear of people who leave the Church because of the sins of priests and the hypocrisy of other lay Catholics. However, we know well that, if someone leaves the Church because of the sins of her members, that person has not truly understood why they belonged to the Church in the first place. For we are not Catholic because of any priests or any popes, we are not Catholic because of the sanctity of other Catholics; we are Catholic because Christ founded the Church and united himself to her as her head and bridegroom. We are Catholic because we love Jesus – and the only reason any ever leave the Church is that they do not yet love Jesus as they should.