In today's Gospel (John 1:29-34) we hear John the Baptist testify about Jesus. When John sees Jesus coming toward him, he exclaims, “Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world.” Hinting at Jesus' divinity, John goes on to explain that Jesus ranks ahead of him because He existed before him. John then says, “I did not know Him.”
These words might make us pause for a moment and think, “Huh?!? Of course John knew Jesus! They were cousins. John recognized Jesus even when he was still a little baby in his mother's womb. And John hesitated to baptize Jesus because he thought Jesus should be baptizing him instead. How could John say he did not know Jesus?”
Hold that thought for a moment, and let's see what else John has to say about Jesus. John claims that the reason he is baptizing is so that Jesus may be known to all of Israel. John is the forerunner, the one who prepares the way, the one who lets people know that Someone else is coming.
John continues, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon Him.” Yes, he did, at Jesus' baptism. Then he repeats his puzzling statement, “I did not know Him.”
God had, however, given John a hint: “...the One who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, He is the One Who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” When John saw the Spirit coming down on Jesus and remaining, he finally knew Who He was, and he could confidently bear witness, “Now I have seen and testified that He is the Son of God.”
Let's return to our puzzle. How could John say that he did not know Jesus? Even in our own lives, we understand that there are many levels of knowing someone. We might merely know of someone, that he or she exists and perhaps who he and she is by sight. We might know someone as an acquaintance and chat with him or her now and again. We might know someone a little better and call that person a friend. We might also know someone very well and be able to grasp the interiorities and intricacies of his or her personality and thought processes. Sometimes, the people we think we know surprise us by doing something that seems out of character. That may cause us to say, “I thought I knew him, but I guess I really didn't.”
John the Baptist, then, is speaking about one of these levels of knowing. Clearly, he knew Jesus by sight. He would certainly have been acquainted with Him. He would probably have even called Him a friend by the time Jesus came to him for baptism. But clearly, John did not know Jesus on the highest level. He did not know Who Jesus was on the inside. He did not know the interiority of Jesus or the depth of His person.
He did, however, find out. He listened and watched. He heard God give him a hint, and he looked for its fulfillment. And he found that fulfillment in Jesus. Then John could really and truly say that he knew Who Jesus was, the very Son of God Who had come to baptize with the Holy Spirit.