From earliest times biblical commentators have speculated hugely and widely on the meaning of John the Baptist’s twofold admission of nescience in today’s gospel (John 1. 29–34):
‘I did not know him myself, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water.’
‘I did not know him myself, but he who sent me to baptise with water had said to me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.”‘
Would it be very wrong to suggest that we can take a simpler and more direct view than that usually put forward? There are many people in the world who, often without realising it and certainly without making any claims for themselves, reveal something of God to us. Even more humbling is the realisation that we ourselves can be unwitting vehicles of revelation to others. There is a catch, however. To say, ‘I did not know him myself,’ is not merely to acknowledge that without grace we would not be able to recognize God or reveal him to others but also to admit that, deep down, we have somehow failed to know God as he desires and intends. That is not ‘failure’ as we usually understand it; it is not sinful, but it is matter for regret and an encouragement to change.
How do we know God? It is old-fashioned to say so, but prayer, reading the scriptures, receiving the sacraments and being generous in acts of charity and service are not only the best way but really the only way to come to knowledge of God. There is just one little problem, of course. We all have to ask ourselves, do we want to know God? For John the Baptist knowing God meant a hard life and an ugly death. It also meant joy of a most amazing kind. Not the easiest of choices, but one we too may be called upon to make.