Have you ever glimpsed pure peace in another person? We see it as we gaze on a little baby while they are asleep. On rare occasions, we experience it in the presence of a particularly holy person. I have felt it on the occasions when I was privileged to be with Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Some people seem to exude peace. They are a blessing to be around. That must be what John the Baptist perceived in Jesus: a person whose very being manifested holiness and peace.
So, who was John that he could recognize Jesus for who he was? Today’s first reading suggests that he identified with the servant of God that Isaiah described: called from the time of his conception to be a light to his people. All the Gospels depict John as a conscious forerunner to the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah, the Anointed One of God. He never claimed to be a messiah but preached to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
One of John the Baptist’s striking characteristics is his humility. Although he apparently attracted great crowds, this desert ascetic proclaimed that the unknown one to come after him ranked ahead of him. Although John’s Gospel doesn’t explicitly mention that John baptized Jesus, we hear in today’s Gospel account the Baptist testify that he saw the Spirit come down upon Jesus at the moment the other Gospels describe as his baptism.
Although he was not a disciple of Jesus, John gets a more detailed and personal description than the Gospels give any other person except Jesus himself. John may have been as well known as Jesus and his following rivaled that of Jesus. But, with all that John accomplished, his greatest gospel witness came through his saying that he was not “the one.” The picture we get of John is that he not only had enough faith to believe in his own unique and crucial vocation, but enough to see beyond his own call, talents and insights.
That was the attitude that allowed John to recognize Jesus. With a profound grasp of his own prophetic vocation, John recognized something greater in Jesus, something that reflected more of God and more of God’s promised future. Thus, John uttered those mystery-filled words we repeat in each Eucharistic celebration just before we receive our Lord in Holy Communion: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The grace that impelled John in his vocation led him to recognize the grace that filled Jesus.
What did John mean by calling Jesus the “Lamb of God”? Was he referring to the lamb that replaced Isaac in Abraham’s sacrifice? The lamb of Exodus whose blood saved the people from destruction? The lamb of atonement sacrifice that restored the ancient Israelite’s broken relationship with God? The apocalyptic lamb of the Book of Revelation whose death brought life? Isaiah’s servant of God who went to death like a lamb to the slaughter?
The simplest answer is: yes – all of the above. John called Jesus the lamb and the son of God. John saw Jesus and saw in him the sacrificial lamb who came to take away our sins, to restore our broken relationship with God, whose death as the servant of God overcame death and offers all believers the promise of eternal life.
The gospels tell us about John so we may learn from him and to find ourselves in him. Like John, we were called at our baptism to make God present in the world. The mystery of our lives is that we are created in the divine image and called to become images of the divine. That’s what Paul means in this morning’s second reading when he says that we have been sanctified and are called to be holy. And, what we see in others and in creation reminds us of both God’s unfathomable greatness and God’s intimate love – a love that dwells in each of us.
John comes to us today inviting us into his own attitude of humble wonderment. First, listening to Isaiah like he did, we remember that we are created in the divine image and that sharing divine life is the reason for our being. Then, lest we ever settle for less or even just settle, John shows us how to open ourselves to the wonder of the God who is greater than we can imagine.
As we begin Ordinary Time once again – time ordered by God for our salvation, John invites us to learn over and over to recognize Christ for who he is and what he offers: the Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world and make us, once again, true images of God in the world.