Msgr. Charles Pope: I Did Not Know Him. A Meditation on a Saying By St. John the Baptist

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By Msgr. Charles Pope, Jan. 20, 2020

In Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29ff) John the Baptist speaks of Jesus, calling him superior, pre-existent, and anointed by the Holy Spirit. But what also stands out is that twice he says, “I did not know him.” This seems odd given that they were cousins. While it is possible that the text merely means they were not well acquainted, it is likely the text means something more, something deeper. It is as if he is saying, “I knew him, but I never really knew him. I never really saw until now the full depths of him, I did not fully realize his glory; not until God showed me. ”

That John missed seeing these deeper realities is understandable since the Lord hid these qualities to some extent. The Letter to the Philippians says,

[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to cling to; rather, he emptied himself by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he thus humbled himself becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6-11)

And thus it was that Jesus, though eternally God, cloaked his glory and in greatest humility allowed himself to be seen by most as a mere man. Such is the humility of our Lord!

But now John is given to glimpse more and he beholds something of the glory of Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. And thus he cries out, “I did not know him!” We too must make a similar journey to the Lord, allowing our faith and understanding of him to deepen. Is this just Jesus, the ethical teacher from Nazareth? He is far more; he is the Lord! Here is our journey with and to the Lord.

Even with each other there may often come the day when we feel compelled to say of someone we have known, “I did not know him.” There are times, for good or ill that we see into the depths of a person we thought we knew well and discover something more, something surprising.

As for the negative surprises, such as when we are surprised to learn that someone we thought we knew, does something very socking and sinful, I choose not to dwell on that here. But we have all had such times when we felt surprise, even betrayal, and wonder if we ever really knew them at all.

In a more positive sense, we ought to presume that there are many depths to a person that we often fail to see or understand. Each of us has some unique glory, some particular gift or role in God’s kingdom. And too often we fail to remember this.

I had such a moment when my sister Mary Anne died. She had been mentally ill all her life, tortured by paranoid schizophrenia and the dark voices in her head. Frankly she scared me, and at other times annoyed me. When she was on her meds she was nearly normal, even if a bit exotic in her thoughts. She loved God and prayed and dreamed of a normal life when she would marry and have kids. But in all this, I never really knew how to interact with her, so I often avoided her.

In 1991 Mary Anne died in a fire, and since her skin had been singed the funeral directors could not adjust her face. They counseled only a private viewing and a closed casket for the remainder of the funeral. In the private viewing I saw that she had died weeping. I saw her pain as I have never seen it before. It pierced me through and I wept. I wondered if I ever really knew her; if I every really understood her pain and her dignity. I was sad that it took her death for me to understand the depths of her struggle and also of her dignity and future glory. The Lord says that many who are last will be first (Mat 19:30).

Consider well that many of us never really know the pains and sorrows others have endured. And old spiritual says, “Nobody knows the trouble I seen, Nobody knows but Jesus.”

Yes, some of the troubled and “troublesome” people we encounter have many sorrows and past troubles that are hidden from us. Most are troubled for a reason. Remembering this may not excuse bad behavior,but it surely helps us be more compassionate and patient.

Remember too, most of us fail to appreciate the glory of other people. Each person we encounter has a mystery and glory that is caught up into the very love of God. God knew each one of us before we were born (Jer 1:5). He knit us together in our mother’s womb, we are fearfully and wonderfully made and every one of our days was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). This is true even of our enemies.

Often we neglect to see remember and understand the deep mystery of every human person, and to reverence it. St. John the Baptist’s declaration, “I did not know him,” reminds us all to be careful toward one another and reverential toward the hidden mystery of all God’s children.

In heaven there is something we call the Communion of Saints. This is no mere crowd experience. Rather we shall see each other more deeply than imaginable now. We will see each other in the light of God; we will know each other and ourselves more as God does. There will be understanding, appreciation and mutual respect we can’t even imagine now.

God gave St. John the Baptist insight into the glory of Christ, a glory that was preeminent and divine such that he could say, “I did not know him!” May God grant us insight in the lesser though still wonderful glory in each other. We will never fully know each other here on earth, but may the “I did not know him” give way increasingly to reverence before the mystery of the human person.