20 January 2008

HOW do you know Christ?

2nd Sunday OT: Isa 49.3-6; 1 Cir 1.1-3; John 1.29-34
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
, Dallas

[Mea culpa! I deleted this recording before I posted it. . .doh.]

John the Baptist, all the while running up and down the Jordan River baptizing folks for repentance in the name of Christ, freely admits upon seeing Jesus that he himself did not know Jesus! He says though that he does know one thing about Jesus; he says, “…the reason why I came baptizing with water was that [Jesus] might be made known to Israel.” This episode from John’s gospel occurs after John has baptized Jesus, so now John knows exactly who and what Jesus is. More than a herald of the coming of the Lord, John is now a witness to the Lord’s presence among us. He says, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. . .he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. . .he is the Son of God.” You may wonder why we are hearing about John the Baptist so soon after Christmas! He is the herald of Advent leading us to Christmas not a witness for Lent who leads us to Easter. We are hearing about the Baptist again so soon after Christmas b/c he makes a single confession of ignorance twice: “I did not know him. . .I did not know him. . .” You might say, here on the verge of Ash Wednesday and Lent, John the Baptist is showing us a way into the Lenten desert: do you know Christ?

There is no shame in confessing that you do not know Christ. You want to know Christ or you wouldn’t be here this morning. It’s likely that you know lots of facts about Christ. His first name: Jesus. His mom’s name: Mary. His dad: Joseph. You may know where he was born; where he lived and preached and taught; when and where he died. You may know all of the prophecies of his coming—Emmanuel, virgin mother, suffering servant, etc. And you may even know people who claim to know him well. But think for a moment about the difference between “knowing facts about Christ” and “knowing Christ.” Even John admits, “I did not know him. . .I did not know him. . .” But what John did know was that he was to baptize Jesus when he saw him so that all of Israel may be exposed to the unveiling of the Christ, the Son of God. How then do you know Christ? Factually or intimately?

I think this question makes Catholics a little nervous. It sounds very evangelical, very Protestant. The question seems to come with a whole bags full of sticky emotions, affective commitments, weepy testimonials, and a certain amount of religious theatre—you know, the preacher running around, shouting, waving his arms, urging people to stand and clap. This is the Protestant version of Catholic calisthenics (stand, bow, sit, kneel, stand, bow, etc). Anyway, let me assure you that our Protestant brothers and sisters have no monopoly on knowing Christ, nor do have they cornered the market on asking whether or we know Christ. This is a universal question for Christians, a catholic question, if you will. John the Baptist comes to the fullest possible knowledge of Christ when the Holy Spirit points him out at the Jordan and says (more or less): “That’s him. Baptize him!” You and I need to hear the question and struggle with an answer because we are packing our things and looking toward the Lenten desert—that time we set aside during the year to face the Devil’s temptations with Christ. Frankly, I want to know who’s with me when I face down the thousands of temptations that peck at me all year!

So, back to the question: do you know Christ? If so, how so? I don’t mean here “by what means do you know Christ;” I mean, what is the quality of your knowledge? Casually, formally, ritually, liturgically, morally, or perhaps, not at all. With regard to the means of knowing Christ, most of what we know we know from scripture, tradition, the magisterium. We are gifted with reason so that we may deduce certain knowledge. We can ask our clergy, our family, our friends. They can tell us some things we may not yet know. Bits and pieces that can be shared with words or gestures, or gifts. We can watch documentaries on A&E or read a library full of books. But finally, ultimately we have to know to what degree of intimacy, to what depth and breadth do we know him? This is a matter of our salvation b/c we were baptized with him in the Jordan. We were with him preaching, healing, feeding, suffering, and dying. We were with him on the cross and in the tomb. He rose up from the grave, leaving us his Holy Spirit, so that—yes absolutely—we will be with him again, rising to the Father! How do you know Christ?

Listen one more time to how Paul addresses the Corinthians in the first letter to them: “…to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Did you catch that? To you who have been sanctified in Christ and “called to be holy…” The depth and breadth of our knowledge of Christ is best measured in our holiness. Our holiness. Not our piety. Not our morality. Not our adherence to the law. But in our holiness. We have the question “do you know Christ?” before us. Another way to ask the same question is this: are you holy? YIKES! What does that mean? Am I holy? Well, you might say, I love my family and friends. I go to Mass, confession, holy days of obligation. I’m pious. I’m moral. I obey the law. I’m a good person, generally speaking. But holy? Yes, are you holy? Here’s your Lenten job, brothers and sisters: become holy. If you are already holy, then become holier. You are, we all are, as capable of becoming holy as we are of breathing, eating, sleeping. How so?

Listen to what the Lord said to Isaiah, “You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.” As baptized members of the Body of Christ, we are the people of his Word, the tribe of David, the royal priesthood of his temple, the prophets of his coming again. Listen again, “You are my servant, Bob, Sue, Jill, Charles, Jeff, Fr. Philip, Richard, you are my servants through whom I show my glory.” We know that only the Lord is good and holy. So the only way we may be good and holy is to show our Lord’s glory. The way Christ shows the Father’s glory. The way the Holy Spirit shows the Father’s glory. We must be a light to the nations so that the Lord’s salvation “may reach to the ends of the earth.” And we can do this precisely because we have been made holy in Christ Jesus and called to the life of the apostle in baptism. Please, be moral, pious, obedient, generous, but be and do all these to show the Lord’s glory. And show the Lord’s glory so that all may hear the call to holiness. That’s our job as members of the Body.

John did his job—baptizing with water for repentance—until the Holy Spirit called him to holiness in Christ. Then he baptized with Christ, showing everyone who came to him the sign of their calling: “Behold! Look there! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Is this what we are doing? This is how we grow in the holiness that Christ died to give us. As you get closer to Lent, that deserted trek across our temptations to disobedience, freely confess, “I do not know Christ.” Take it as a temptation if you want to confess, “I do know Christ!” Why a temptation? Because we are growing in holiness. A confession of ignorance is the humble means of knowing him better, more deeply; it is the surer means of coming to the surer knowledge that you are all at once planted, nurtured, pruned, cultivated, but not yet harvested. All of the possibilities for our growth in holiness lie in this one confession: “Here am I, Lord! I come to do your will!”

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