John 1:6-8, 19-28
Recognizing Christ by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites (to him) to ask him, "Who are you?" he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, I am not the Messiah." So they asked him, "What are you then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, " I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." So they said to him, "Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?" He said: "I am 'the voice of one crying out in the desert, "Make straight the way of the Lord,"' as Isaiah the prophet said." Some Pharisees were also sent. They asked him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to unite." This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
We find one of Scripture's saddest lines in the prologue of John's Gospel: "He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him." (Jn 1:11)
Indeed, this is the greatest tragedy of salvation history. The leaders of Israel failed to recognize and welcome the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ. And the tragedy of the situation is found in that they were in fact waiting and watching for him, as we see in their treatment of John the Baptist.
When John appears at the Jordan, they send priests and Levites to see if he might be the Messiah. "I am not the Messiah." he says plainly (Jn 1:20). Since they still sense in him a harbinger of the Messiah, they press the issue.
Knowing the prophecy that Elijah will precede the Messiah (cf. Sir 48:10; Mal 4:5), they ask, "What are you then? Are you Elijah?" (Jn 1:21). John says, "I am not." Then, thinking that perhaps John is the one foretold by Moses, (cf. Dt 18:15-19) they ask, "Are you the Prophet?" (Jn 19:21). Again John answers, "No."
Thus the leaders of Israel show their attentiveness and expectation of the Messiah. Any yet, despite all this, they did not recognize or accept Christ when He came. Years later they would cry out against His claim to be the Messiah. "Crucify him! Crucify him!" (Mk 15:13-14)
More than a sad historical fact, the failure of these men serves as a cautionary tale - for we find ourselves in a similar position of waiting and watching. Our Lord promised to come to us - and not only at the end of the world but also through the course of our lives. We, then, like the leaders of Israel, should be attentive to His coming. And we should fear to hear what John spoke to them: "(the Christ) is one among you whom you do not recognize." (Jn 1:25)
Christ is indeed among us. But do we recognize Him? To do so we must bear in mind what He said about His continuing presence, about how He would be among us.
As He Himself taught, He is among us in various ways. We hear His voice in the teaching authority of the Church, as He promised His first disciples: "Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me." (Lk 10:16) He comes to us in the smallest among us: "Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me." (Mk 9:37) And likewise in the least among us: "(Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Mt 25-40)
Indeed we have a greater obligation to recognize the Messiah than the ancient Israelites. For He dwells not only among us but also within us - by grace. He comes to us most especially in the sacraments - and it is in them perhaps that we most often fail to recognize Him. At baptism we receive that sanctifying grace that fulfills His promise to dwell within us. (cf. In 14:23) In our reception of the Eucharist we encounter Him again and again, in the most intimate manner imagined,.
The leaders of Israel made the mistake of expecting Christ according to their own standards, not His. They expected Him to come in the way they thought proper. Rather than allow Him to reveal Himself to them, they insisted on having Him come on their terms. As a result they looked for Him were He was not and failed to see Him where He was.
Let us, learning from their failure, seek Him where He promised to be in the Church, in the small and weak, and most of all in the grace we receive from the sacraments.
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