Perhaps you’ve seen some of those Italian Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary with John the Baptist and Jesus as chubby three-year old boys. John is usually wearing a junior version of the camel hair outfit of his wilderness years. Sometimes there’s a little lamb in the scene or John may be holding a staff with a banner that reads “Ecce Agnus Dei”: “Behold the Lamb of God.”
This is a “mash up” of the Luke story about John the Baptist and the Gospel of John’s story. It’s in Luke that we get the suggestion, at least, that John the Baptist and Jesus might have known each other, since their mothers were related. And that they may have played together as little boys. All that is missing in John. It’s in the Gospel of John that John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God”—and that is missing in Luke and the other Gospels.
Did they know each other before John the Baptist witnessed the Spirit descending on Jesus? Who knows? For the sake of argument, let’s assume they did know each other since they were both in a similar line of work in the same part of the Holy Land, which is actually a very small country. And they may in fact have been related, as Luke says. So, when John says “I myself did not know him”, he could be saying something like “I’ve known him since childhood—but I didn’t really know him. I didn’t know him then as I do now.”
Seeing the Spirit descend upon Jesus, John understands him in a new way. It doesn’t matter very much whether Jesus and John the Baptist knew each other for thirty years or only five minutes: John sees Jesus in a new way when the Spirit descends upon him. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We might say John has an epiphany—in seeing Jesus in a new way, John has an epiphany.
The Magi have an epiphany of Jesus—they see an infant that is more than an infant. The disciples have epiphanies of Jesus—they come to see a man that is more than a man. We might call the entire New Testament a book of epiphanies and the Christian religion a religion of epiphanies. We experience our own epiphanies of Christ; we experience epiphanies of each other. We even experience epiphanies about ourselves. We come to see and know more about who Jesus is, who we are, who our neighbors are.
So John the Baptist’s epiphany wasn’t only about Jesus. In coming to know Jesus in a fuller way, he surely began to understand himself in a new way. In witnessing the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus—if we can presume to get inside John’s head–John himself is changed, his self-understanding expands to take all this in.
For those of us who might have room for one more New Year’s resolution, it might be this: to be open to new epiphanies, to be open to seeing others in new ways, to seeing Jesus in new ways, to seeing ourselves in fresh and perhaps even surprising new ways.
This is not easy, of course. There are powerful psychological and social forces at work that can make this an uphill battle. We get stuck: in terms of our own self-understanding, in terms of how we see others and, indeed, in how we understand Jesus. We drag our formative years and families of origin around with us our entire lives. We cast other people as characters in our personal psycho-dramas. We cast Jesus as a player in our personal psycho-dramas. We make judgments of other people that can be very difficult to undo. Getting to a place where we can be open to new epiphanies is easier said than done.
Perhaps we can begin with a little clue from John the Baptist. “I did not know him.” Whatever their previous relationship, John was able, in a sense, to “un-know” Jesus—in order to see him afresh, to understand him in a new way. Maybe this is the clue: to “un-know” ourselves, to “un-know” our neighbor, even to “un-know” Jesus. In the Medieval devotional classic, “The Cloud of Unknowing” the master says (I paraphrase) to forget everything you thought you knew about God, put all your images and understandings of God under a cloud of forgetting, a cloud of unknowing.
Or, to put it another way, this means realizing how little we do know about ourselves, how little we really know about our neighbor—even how little we know about Jesus and God. It means comprehending and accepting the limitations of our understanding. Recognizing these limits can take us a long way toward openness to new information, new epiphanies.
It can mean simply letting go of what we think we know. (What we think we know about someone is highly suspect in the first place.) One of the Desert Fathers stories puts it very succinctly: “Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.” We can’t really erase our memories and it wouldn’t necessarily be good if we could—but what if every single day we made a fresh beginning? Perhaps this is what John the Baptist was able to do. He saw Jesus in a fresh new way—he made a fresh beginning with someone he may have known all his life. So fresh and new that he could say, “I didn’t really know him.”
We can’t, of course, forget what we know about others. But, to use a computer metaphor, we can “minimize” it. Like that little box in the upper right corner of the screen: you click on it and what had previously filled the screen is tucked away behind a small icon at the bottom or side of the screen. The information is not lost; it just doesn’t take up the whole screen anymore. It’s still there, available as needed, but no longer dominating—the screen is now free for something new. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that with our minds?
To let go of what we think we know to make room for new epiphanies requires a willingness to accept fluidity, flux, change, growth. Making room for new epiphanies requires the willingness to risk the uncertainties of growth—our own growth and the growth of others. The willingness to not be locked in to a previous edition of our selves, not be locked in to previous editions of others or even previous editions of who we think Jesus is.
Because there’s always more! Because the Spirit has descended upon us, because Christ dwells within us, we are now “mysteries that cannot be fathomed”, as our Rule of Life puts it (Chapter 27: Silence). There shall always be more epiphanies of Christ and of ourselves.
“Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.”
“O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever.” [BCP p. 214]
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