by Jeremiah Bartram on 14/01/11 at 8:50 am
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” John 1, 29-34; reading for Sunday, January 16.
NRSV: “John identifies Jesus as the powerful Lamb who has come to change the sinful condition of society. The imagery of the Lamb is drawn from the Passover lamb and from the depiction of the “servant” of the Lord in Isa 53, 4-7.” A.E. Harvey: One of the many beliefs about the Messiah was that he was already on earth, unknown – and Jesus conformed to that belief about the “hidden Messiah”, who, once revealed, proved completely different from conventional expectation. He notes that John twice uses the phrase, “I myself did not know him.” Alain Marchadour notes the contrast between the Gospel of John and the synoptic accounts: here it is the Baptist who sees the Spirit descend and rest on Jesus, and it is he who bears witness to his identity as “Son of God” (or, in some manuscripts, the Chosen of God). In the synoptics, it is Jesus who both receives and witnesses this divine confirmation of his identity.
Gospel for gays
Like Alain Marchadour, I am struck by the contrast between this version of the baptism of Jesus, and that of – say – Luke. The focus is on John the Baptist. Twice he says that he himself did not recognize Jesus for what he was, the Messiah. John and Jesus were cousins; Mary’s first act after being impregnated with Jesus was journeying alone to spend three months with Elizabeth, John’s mother. So it’s natural to suppose that the two boys knew each other when they were growing up. What John did not recognize, until the moment of the baptism, was the actual identity of his kinsman: truly, Jesus was the hidden Messiah. The other thing that strikes me about this passage is John’s own sense of fulfillment, now that he has encountered the chosen one, the man he calls “Son” and “Lamb” of God: “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” In that flash of revelation, he understands why God has called him out of the wilderness and told him call Israel to repentance and baptize the crowds: this is it, this is the unlooked-for culmination of his mission, the reason he was called, the fulfillment of his own vocation. The goal of his life. His work is over – yes. He understands that. But he also understands the “why” of it. Somehow the Baptist’s experience strikes a deep chord in me. Last week I was almost envying those for whom the call of God seems simple and direct and – OK, I’ll use the word – pure. It’s not that way for me. It’s messy and confusing. How can it be otherwise for a gay person? But this week, here’s John the Baptist talking about his own vocation. No one could be more simple, more direct, more pure than this wild man, this ascetic messenger clothed in the rough skins and living on wild honey. The iconographic tradition portrays him in an arid landscape, with unkempt hair and huge wings – signs of his great asceticism, and (the wings) his angelic nature as God’s messanger. Yet – here we find out that this man of total commitment did not know why God had called him to do the crazy stuff he was doing. He heard the call, and he did the crazy stuff – without fully understanding why. And only in this moment of fulfillment, when he recognizes Jesus for who he is, does he comprehend his own vocation: “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” I find this wonderfully encouraging. As gay Christians, we are bound to feel isolated, disregarded, ignored, and sometimes actively rejected by a church that so overwhelmingly serves the sexual majority. So there are bound to be times of discouragement, when we – I – wonder: “Why continue this senseless struggle? The church says it’s either-or: either be Catholic or be gay, you can’t have both. They don’t want us (me). Maybe it’s time to just leave.” But I think we’re called to bear witness to a deeper reality – and we don’t yet know the “Jesus” of that deeper reality; we only glimpse its shape, its dimensions, its importance in the plan of God. And so, when I pray over this Sunday reading, I ask for the grace to remain faithful – not to the God of the “either-or”, but to the God of “both-and”.