‘Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Getting to like you, getting to know you like me!’ This song from ‘The King and I’ suggests that it takes time to get to know the important somebody in your life. What about yourselves? Do you remember the first time you met your best friend, mentor, or spouse? Did you know instantly, like love at first sight, that this was the person of your dreams? Or did it only slowly dawn on you that there is something special about this person? While love at first sight happens, the latter is more often the case. It usually takes time for the true value of a person to dawn on us. There is that strategic gap between meeting and getting to know someone. And how often has it happened that the person we so airily dismissed off hand turns out to be the most helpful and dearest in later life.
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist meets Jesus for the first time. What’s extraordinary about this meeting is that John confesses twice that he did not know him. John, whose purpose in life was to make Jesus known to all of Israel, was at a loss to identify him. In the end, it was the Spirit descending on Jesus that gave him the clue. Then he could say ‘yes, this is the man! This is the one I’ve been talking about!’
But John’s getting to know Jesus did not end there. In Matthew 11:2-11 we find John in prison and he is still having serious doubts about Jesus. So, he sends his disciples inquiring, ‘are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ Obviously, Jesus is not turning out to be the kind of Messiah that John had hoped for. He expected Jesus to be more of a firebrand, not a gentle Messiah who held out the olive branch to all and sundry. John’s struggle then is to allow Jesus to be Jesus and not force Jesus to fit his expectations of the one who is to come.
If John, great prophet that he was, struggled to recognise Jesus, then what of us? The temptation for us is to think we know Jesus very well. But is it the real Jesus that we know or have we made Jesus in our own image; someone who will pander to all our needs and wants. Allowing Jesus to be Jesus in our lives means trying to accept Jesus on his terms, not on ours.
Let’s take a fresh look at Jesus. He is ‘coming towards John. That is Jesus. He is always coming towards us, no matter what situation we find ourselves in. John appeals to us to look at this Jesus. ‘Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ We say these words at every Mass, and we are so accustomed to them that they no longer strike us. Taking away our sins is mega, something way beyond our powers. Sin is that fundamental alienation of humanity from God. It is like a bird caught in an oil slick. Though born to fly and soar the dizzy heights, it is powerless to free itself from the sludge that clogs its wings. We too are meant to soar high as heaven but sin clogs up our wings and we are rendered helpless. We want to love but find ourselves unable to love well; we want to be truthful but we act in such a way to avoid the consequences of truth; we want to share but feel too insecure to let go of anything. Like Paul we can all say: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
And yet, right here in the depths of despair is the moment of salvation for Paul. ‘Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Paul’s moment of enlightenment came when he realised that Jesus can indeed take away our sins. Jesus doesn’t merely oppose sin in theory, he “takes it away”. He does not accept sin as inevitable; he wages war against it. As individuals and as a church we have tended to water down this aspect of Jesus’. We resign ourselves to accepting evil on the grounds that it is inevitable and in any case, we are powerless to do anything about it; we say to ourselves – and to others – that this is how life is and we must accept it. Getting to know Jesus therefore is realising that Jesus has power to forgive and reconcile us with God and with each other. We are set free to be truly human again.
Jesus has a distinctive way of “taking away sin”. He does it by being a “lamb of God”. This image reminds us of the paschal lamb at the Exodus that was instrumental is saving the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The meek lamb highlights Jesus willingness to die for us. But it was not just the death of Jesus that was sacrificial. His whole life was a living sacrifice, spelt out daily in a willingness to give of himself without ever counting the cost. And the reason for this was his consuming love for his Father. The responsorial psalm sums up his attitude perfectly, ‘Here I am Lord, I have come to do your will.’ Jesus lived his life in obedience to his Father and in doing so allowed God to be Lord of his life.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I don’t like that man; I have to get to know him better.” Lincoln understood that the more we know a person the more likely we will forgive and accept that person. The Jesus that comes to us today, as he did with the Baptist, comes to us with a loving knowledge that is understanding and accepting of us, just as we are. Getting to know others better might well be one of your better new year resolutions. We are not talking detective stuff, rather it’s a matter of celebrating with loving knowledge those many others that people our lives. Why not put Jesus top of the list? After all he identifies himself with all the others that are coming to us today.
Sunday, 15 January 2017