This morning’s Gospel reading is John 1:29–34:

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. 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.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

Our church had a celebration of the feast of Epiphany last weekend, with lots of good food, fellowship, and fun activities. One of the activities was a Family Feud contest; someone had acquired a computer version of the game and some religious-themed surveys. This turned out to be a blast for everyone, and gave us opportunities to engage across generations and meet people in the wider community.

One answer initially stumped me, although I wasn’t playing at the time. The question was, “Who knew about Jesus’ birth?” Among the obvious answers: Mary, Joseph, the angels, the Magi, and even Herod came up in the survey. But so too did John the Baptist. I turned to friends at my table and expressed my confusion, and they promptly reminded me how John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb at the Visitation.

This, however, conflicts at least somewhat with today’s reading from John. Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, and close enough for Mary to travel to her house as a young woman. Presumably, their relationship would have continued afterward, although interrupted by the Holy Family’s escape for a few years into Egypt. The only sons of both cousins and born months apart, it seems unbelievable that they would not have come into contact with each other. In an era where extended-family structures undergirded everything and provided what little security could be attained, it seems unthinkable that John didn’t know Jesus — by sight, anyway.

What explains John the Baptist’s testimony, given twice by John the Evangelist in what seems like a clear emphasis, “I did not know him”?

One explanation could be that John the Baptist didn’t recognize his cousin, and that they truly had been separated their entire lives. The family connection was known to the disciples, though, as we clearly see in the Gospels of both John and Luke. That likely would have been known to many others in that time and place, especially Jesus Himself, before He went to be baptized. Even apart from His divine nature, Jesus would have known John, and we can assume that John would have at least known Jesus as a member of his family, if nothing more.

In that case, then, what did John the Baptist mean by declaring. “I did not know him,” especially when considering how he recognized Jesus in the womb? And more importantly, what does it tell us?

First, it reminds us that acquaintance or familiarity in the everyday sense does not automatically mean a sense of intimate knowledge of a person. John may have known Jesus as his cousin, but as a grown man John did not know Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus has this same problem in Nazareth when He returns to preach there and perform miracles and signs. We read about that in Mark 6:1-6, where the people who presumed to know Jesus reject Him as a teacher and prophet, and apparently jeered Him out of town. This led Jesus to comment, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives, and in his own home,” and he went on to minister to other communities instead.

John the Baptist may therefore have repeated this claim not out of dramatics but instead a sense of humility. Until the dove settled on Jesus, John did not recognize who his cousin truly was. “I did not know him” is the opposite of the arrogant attitude taken by Jesus’ hometown, who all presumed to know exactly and entirely who Jesus was. They sat in judgment, while John the Baptist listened to the Lord and opened himself up to the Messiah.

But why did it take that sign? John the Baptist had already recognized Jesus while in the womb, leaping at Jesus’ arrival in the early days of Mary’s pregnancy. Again, although it seems unlikely, Jesus and John the Baptist may not have remained in contact, but one would hope that such recognition would remain. In truth, though, we struggle in the world and lose connection to our faith, either through sin or just the enormous distractions we face every day: making a living, supporting families, keeping up with friends, and so on. After thirty years, even for a prophet like John the Baptist, that connection would be difficult to maintain.

In both contexts, this reminds us that we need to keep our focus on Christ and the Lord to maintain that connection. It is not enough to know of Jesus, or to approach Jesus as a historical and/or cultural figure. It is not enough to approach His teachings as mere philosophy either. Jesus is all of these things — a philosopher/theologian, a cultural force, and an actual historical figure — but if that’s all He is to us, then we do not know him either.

To know Jesus Christ, we must embrace Him much more closely than that. We must allow Him into our hearts, and not just our logic and curiosity, because His salvation mission requires that kind of commitment. And we must do that every day, even while stumbling and failing, because to push Him off and relegate Jesus to mere history or philosophy is to ensure that we end up treating Him the way His hometown did — putting their judgment ahead of Him, and presuming to “know” Him while remaining willfully ignorant and defiant.

That is the way of sin. John the Baptist shows us the way of salvation, just as surely as he did on the day of Jesus’ baptism — which is why this lesson remains so potent to this day.

The front-page image is a detail from “Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness” by Francesco Granacci, c. 1506-7. Currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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