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.


Do You See this Woman?

As we read Scripture, we should be very attentive when Jesus asks a question. In particular, we should understand that Jesus is posing the question to us as well. It is easy to treat the Gospels like a spectator sport and wait to see what the response is, but that is not the only way we should engage with the text. Not just the Gospels but the entire biblical narrative is our story, too. We are in the story, and the story is in us. (I have written on this topic more thoroughly here: 100 Questions That Jesus Asked and You Must Answer.)

Let’s ponder a question that Jesus asked in last week’s Gospel reading. (Note: I was at a meeting of the Catholic Bar Association in St. Louis, MO, this past weekend, and Fr. James Mason, the rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary helped me to appreciate a new level to this question.) The question comes in Luke 7, when Jesus is dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee. As Jesus reclined at table, a sinful woman came up behind Him; she washed His feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with expensive perfume. The text tells us that Simon thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching Him, for she is a sinner” (Lk 7:39). A few moments later Jesus asks Simon,

“Do you see this woman?” (Lk 7:44)

Now, let the question linger for a moment and ponder its depths. There is more here than an inquiry as to whether Simon is aware of her physical presence.

“Do you see this woman?”

He does not. He sees a sinner, likely a prostitute, but he does not see her.

Whatever this woman’s sins, and they may be many, she is still a child of God. Something terrible must have happened in her life that she has fallen into such self-destructive sin. What a miserable life of forced intimacy! Has her poverty driven her to this? Was she disowned by her family? She has not lost her way entirely, however, for she has crossed paths with Jesus. Propelled by sorrow for her sin, she reaches for Jesus in the hope of receiving His mercy.

“Do you see this woman?”

We can be inclined to treat people the way Simon treated this woman. It is easy to forget that behind the many labels we can put on another person is a human being, a child of God, someone’s son or daughter, perhaps someone’s father or mother, perhaps someone’s brother or sister. It is a form of reductionism in which we focus on a single aspect of a person, forgetting the full, complex human being that exists.

For example, in the sin of lust, one reduces another person to his or her body for the purpose of one’s own sexual pleasure. Love regards the person, but lust cares only for the body. Pornography not only reveals too much, it also reveals too little; the body is displayed, but the person is not. I encourage those who struggle with pornography to ask for the gift of tears; to realize that what they are looking at is a tragedy. (Because the vast majority of those who fight this battle are men, I will word the rest of this paragraph from that standpoint, however, the message is the same for women who face this struggle.) The woman a man lusts after is a person, a child of God, someone’s daughter, perhaps someone’s mother, perhaps someone’s sister. Something has gone terribly wrong in her life. When she was a child she surely did not dream of this life. She probably wanted to find a good husband and have a family. Something tragic must have brought her to this place.

“Do you see this woman?”

There are many other ways we can reduce people and forget their humanity. We see that criminal or that member of the wrong political party. We savage many of our leaders and sometimes even their children. We look at others and see only their race or their sex or how they are dressed. Behind all these labels is a person who has a story. In my role as a priest, I have come to recognize that few of us ever really understand the struggles and sorrows of others. Many people carry burdens of which we are unaware. We need to remember this, especially when dealing with troubled people in our lives. Many of them are troubled for a reason. This does not always excuse their behaviors, but remembering this can help us to be more patient, more understanding, and less quick to condemn.

“Do you see this woman?”

Conversely, there are some people who insist that we reduce them and see them only in the light of a single aspect of who they are. In today’s world of identity politics, some label themselves as LGBTQ, some emphasize their race, some emphasize a particular disability, and others want us to see them only as victims of this or that. Why should I see people simply in terms of what sexually tempts them or merely as victims of “the system”? Are they not also free human beings? Are they not also children and siblings and parents? Are they not also lawyers and teachers and mechanics? Why do they insist that I focus on only one thing? When I am constantly confronted with labels or narrow categories, I often don’t ever get to meet the real people behind them. I don’t get to know if they root for my favorite team, or have a similar love for photography and music, or have had ups and downs in life similar to my own.

Simon the Pharisee looked at a woman and saw only a prostitute. What do I see when I look at others, especially the most troubled?

“Do you see this woman?”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Do You See this Woman?