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

In Sunday’s Gospel (John 1:29ff), John the Baptist speaks of Jesus, calling Him superior, pre-existent, and anointed by the Holy Spirit. What also stands out is that John twice 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, there is likely a deeper explanation. It is as if John is saying, “I knew him, but I never reallyknew Him. I never reallysaw until now the full depths of Him. I did not fully realize His glory until God showed me.”

That John missed seeing these deeper realities is understandable, as the Lord hid these qualities to some extent.In Philippians we read,

[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).

Jesus, though eternally God, cloaked His glory;He allowed Himself to be seen by most as a mere man. Such is the humility of our Lord!

John is now permitted to see more,and he beholds something of the glory of Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. This is why he cries out, “I did not know him.” We must make a similar journey to the Lord, allowing our faith and understanding of Him to deepen. Is this merely Jesus, the ethical teacher from Nazareth? No, He is far more; He is the Lord! This is our journey with and to the Lord.

Even with one another, there may come a day when we feel compelled to say of someone we have known, “I did not know him.”There are times we see into the depths of a person we thought we knew well only to discover something more (whether good or bad), something surprising.

Sometimes we are surprised in a negative way, such as when someone we thought we knew well does something shocking and sinful. I choose not to dwell on that here. Most of us have had such times when were surprised, were shocked, or even felt betrayed, wondering if we ever really knew the person at all.

In a more positive sense,we ought to presume that there are depths to a person that we do not 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 dark voices in her head. Frankly, she frightened me; at other times she annoyed me. When she was taking her medications, she was nearly normal, even if a bit exotic in her thoughts. She loved God; she prayed and dreamed of a normal life with marriage and children. But I never really knew how to interact with her, so I often avoided her.

In 1991 Mary Anne died in a fire,and because her skin had been singed the funeral directors could not adjust her face. Hence, they recommended only a private viewing, with a closed casket for the remainder of the time. At the private viewing I could tell that she had died weeping. I saw her pain as I had never seen it before. It pierced me through, and I wept. I wondered if I had ever really known her, if I had ever 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 to recognize her dignity and future glory. The Lord says that many who are last will be first (Mat 19:30).

Many of us never really know the pains and sorrows others have endured. There’s an old spiritual with these lyrics: “Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.”

Yes, some of the troubled and “troublesome” people we encounter have sorrows and difficulties 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.

Most of us fail to appreciate the glory of others.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 fail to recognize 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 called the “communion of saints.”Experiencing this will not merely be like being in a crowd of strangers. Rather, we shall see one another more deeply than we can now imagine. We will see each other in the light of God, knowing one another and ourselves more the way He does. There will be understanding, appreciation, and mutual respect that we can’t even fathom 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 into the lesser—though still wonderful—glory in one another. We will never fully know one another here in this world, but may our “I did not know him” be replaced by reverence before the mystery of the human person.


5 Replies to “I Did Not Know Him. A Meditation on a Saying By St. John the Baptist”

  1. Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus. Thank you, Monsignor. Beautiful, wonderful, inspired, considering your own recent trials by fire. May God continue to bless your priesthood!

  2. Love this blog. Who thought a Methodist / Baptist would resonate with a Catholic. 🙂
    I am taking a bit of advantage here and would like to comment on a previous post = difference between knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Please indulge me as the comments are closed.
    I just want to know a couple of things.
    1. Why are the comments closed = knowledge answer preferred
    2. Why are the comments closed = from an understanding “perspective”
    3. Why are the comments closed = answer preferred that is enfused with wisdom.

    I find that the discussions on the blog – by various participants enthralled by the debate – is telling in itself. However the closing of comments even more. Don’t you find? I would sincerely appreciate your overall take on the blog and it’s commentary now that the passage of time has allowed for reflection and perhaps new insights. What is your take on what happened there from the 7 perspectives of 7 plaines i.e., physical, spiritual, divine, perceptual, biological etc.

    The reason I’m so interested is that I – not even. 20min ago -had that great aha moment when it was revealed to me that I have no Understanding of good and evil. I never really thought of understanding it. But I know in my heart that us humans cannot EVER understand good and evil. Ito understand it, one needs to b omnipotent. And I know for sure there is only one guy with that kind of power! (And I’m not referring to Google!).

    Peace be upon you.

    Thank you.

  3. “Often, we fail to recognize the deep mystery of every human person and to reverence it.”

    I think I recall a story you told of your discernment of your priesthood. You opened a fortune cookie that said, “You are the apple of my eye.” Another time, I read of a near death experience in which Jesus allegedly told the person the same thing — “You are the apple of my eye.” It struck me that our God is truly head over heels crazy about every one of us, even those we find difficult or even offensive. We need to recognize our Lord in each person we meet.

    Thank you so much for sharing the wisdom that God gives you. May He continue to bless you abundantly.

  4. I must admit I stumbled over this statement by Jesus’ cousin when it appeared in the readings. What an inspired exegesis, almost as if to answer my very question! Thanks, Msgr. Pope!

  5. Yet St Luke tells us that St John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb when the Blessed Virgin arrived bearing Christ in her womb. So he “knew” who Christ was even as an unborn child. Traditionally that us seem as the moment of his conversion, explaining why Christ said that no man born of woman was equal to John the Baptist.
    And yet why does John send his disciples (so St John apostle tells us) to ask Jesus “are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?”

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