How do we come to know who Jesus is? How do we come to know Jesus? This is a crucial question because it has everything to do with our life and how we introduce others to God. John the Baptist, who prepares the way for the Lord, shows us by his testimony to Jesus how we come to meet and to know the Lord. Twice in today’s Gospel passage, John says, “I did not know him, but…” So there was a time when he didn’t know Jesus, and then something happened that made him know the Lord. What happened to John describes for us the dynamic through which we meet Jesus today. The first thing is that John saw Jesus coming toward him. Jesus approaches John. This encounter is not of John’s making. It is an encounter that surprises him. John’s eyes are opened in a new way in this meeting, and he invites others to see what he sees: “Behold, the Lamb of God…” In this encounter, John is able to make sense of his own life – he grasps the meaning and purpose of his life and work. After this encounter, John can say, “the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” Scripture quotes that reference the Messiah, philosophical statements about God, theological teachings, and prophetic utterances remain abstract and enigmatic until one has a human encounter and sees with one’s own eyes someone exceptional. This exceptionality of Jesus is the quality that in him something greater than this world has entered this world. That quality is a unity within and with others that speaks of a relationship with the eternal. It is not something conditioned by the circumstances but is a quality that “remains” and is expressed in how the person relates to everyone and to everything. It is an observable fact. John says, “now I have seen and testify that he is the Son of God.”
A friend of mine has a son in his mid-twenties. He is a graduate student working on a degree in philosophy. The mother told me recently that her son met a girl on-line who lives in Georgia. They communicate regularly via Skype. They are trying to figure out if it is worth meeting in person and taking the relationship to the next level. They ask each other questions like, “would you have a pet in the house?” “A dog?” “Would you be willing to take the dog for a walk?” Her son responded, “I would take the dog for a walk but not pick up after the dog.” I suppose it is good to be upfront and honest about such matters, but my friend said to her son, “That is not how you find love or find a spouse.” He replied angrily, “Who are you to tell me what love is?” It seems arrogant to the son for the mother to make a claim about love. She spoke from her experience. “I met your father in Italy, and I left everything to follow him to America as his pursued his career. I didn’t know or try to plan out ahead of time the details of the path for my life with him.” It does seem arrogant until someone has a similar experience that makes sense of his life and gives his life a new direction filled with hope.
Compatibility on paper or on an on-line survey or through a negotiation like outlining a contact with business partner – trying to line up one’s idea of the perfect spouse or marriage as the criteria of judgment has limited utility or even ends up being a big obstacle in the discernment or knowing of the person and one’s path for the future. The judgment has to come through a real human encounter in a way not constrained by our preconditions – like the boxes we think we need to check off. A relative of mine, recently divorced after more than 10 years of marriage, identified what happened to her this way. “I went into marriage, based on the needs and insecurities of my childhood, believing that financial stability was the most important factor in what to look for in a spouse. That is what I was looking for – the main criteria. My husband was a good provider, but this idea of financial stability and the fact that we had our material needs taken care of, blinded me for about 10 years to the more important things that were lacking. You wake up one morning thinking, “I really don’t know this man I’m married to.”
It does seem arrogant to make the claim to have met Jesus or have had an experience of God until someone also has had the experience of John the Baptist. I did not plan on being a priest or on entering the seminary, but surprising events that came into my life and clarified what I was looking for made me feel that if I didn’t follow this, I would be missing out on life. We can’t make it happen. We can’t free ourselves from the desire for particular and limited things (our own plans and ideas) until God comes to us and we have the humility and simplicity of John the Baptist to recognize him – that this man, in the flesh, corresponds to the longing of my heart in a way that connects me to all of reality. I realize after this encounter that there is a reason why I am here. To have this surprising encounter makes our heart leap for joy and opens us up to new possibilities. The psalm today (40/39) captures this experience well: “I have waited, waited for the Lord, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry. And he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God.” It is too little for us to be looking for what we think will save us. God has bigger plans than our ideas and will work through us – our humanity – to reveal his glory, i.e., his presence, to the world. That is how we meet him and know him, and stay open to possibilities that keep life always new and fascinating.