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One winter many years ago, I was giving a parish mission in Los Angeles. The Sunday before the mission began, I preached at all the weekend Masses. After one Sunday morning Mass, I was waiting to greet the parishioners in the parking lot as they exited the church. One of the first people to come out was an attractive, friendly young woman. She stopped and asked me where I was from. When I told her I lived on the East Coast, she mentioned that she was originally from New Jersey, and that she would be traveling back there in a few days to visit her mother. I reminded her that the weather in New Jersey was not like in LA. She should bring a sweater. With a smile, the attractive, friendly young woman walked away. Another parishioner, who had witnessed the exchange, then approached me and asked, “So what was it like talking to Brooke Shields?” I totally had not recognized her.
Recognition and certainty
John the Baptist informs the people in the Gospel this Sunday, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize.” But the people’s inability to recognize is directed first to John. Why do the representatives sent from the priests and Levites in Jerusalem keep asking John the Baptist, “Who are you? What are you? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet? Who are you? We need an answer to give to those who sent us!”
There is something undismissable, even irresistible about John the Baptist — namely, his certainty. Certainty isn’t something we produce psychologically. Certainty takes hold of us as the result of a powerful presence that comes into our life, engaging us at the deepest level of our self and bonding us, the way a tiny baby is certain about her relationship with her parents. Certainty comes from the fact that we are chosen … and we are chosen — not because of our goodness, but — because of the goodness of Another. Certainty flows from the mercy that has entered our life, embracing us, as it were, over and over.
Certainty is not what I do. Certainty is Someone who has happened to us. It is the event of Someone in my life, the event of an encounter. The encounter with Christ, the encounter with this difference that attracts, makes me aware of what I am, what I want. It makes me realize that I am a demand for meaning. It makes me realize that I am a desire for happiness. And it makes me realize that what this encounter brings, what this Man Jesus brings, is what I want. It clarifies my question. It clarifies my need (Fr. Stefano Alberto).
For John the Baptist, the encounter with Christ began when he was still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth the day that the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Visitation brought the Child in her womb to them.
John in effect is saying, Don’t worry about recognizing me. Recognize HIM!I am not the Christ. But you need Him! I am here to offer you that encounter.
The people’s many questions boil down to this: How can you be this way? Because I want to be that way too! The exceptionality of John the Baptist made people want to listen to him. John’s witness assures us that we can actually “make straight the way of the Lord” by letting the encounter with the One Among You touch everything twisted, crooked, convoluted, or bent out of shape in our life.
What convinces us that John is credible is his joy. As Evangelii Gaudium notes, “a person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain, and in love, will convince nobody” (#266). The glory of St. John the Baptist is what the Catechism calls parrhesia:
straightforward simplicity [John lived in the desert and ate grasshoppers],
filial trust [“He must increase, I must decrease” (Jn 3:30)],
joyous assurance [“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:16)],
humble boldness [“After me is to come a man who ranks ahead of me” (Jn 1:30)],
the certainty of being loved [“This is God’s chosen One. Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:34, 36)] (CCC 2778).
And that is meant for us as well this Gaudete Sunday.
John’s great joy was not something secondary. It was the very substance of his being touched by divine joy. As he prepared people’s hearts, he also prepared them to bear the extremely heavy weight of joy; hearts, which had to a certain extent become accustomed to despair, he helped to open up to the happiness which only God can give (Jean Danielou, S.J.).
And the apex of our joy is that fact that, even though we are not worthy to remove Jesus’ shoes, our Lord is soon to stoop down and wash our dirty feet.
Find his series of brief reflections on prayer here.
And his new series on the Eucharist here.