One of the smartest people I have met was an American priest in Rome. He was lecturing even as a student and now works for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. We were having lunch once and talking about the various proofs of God’s existence. This priest knew the history and logic and controversies of all of them. He also had a good sense of their how persuasive they were in reality. However, perhaps he had one massive blind-spot.
When I asked him how he knew God’s existence, which proof worked best for him, he looked at me blankly. “Why would I need proof of someone I know in prayer?” His blind-spot wasn’t my question. His blind-spot was that this was by far the most convincing thing he said to me about God. It is one of the moments I saw true personal witness. His blind-spot perhaps was that he did not think to start there every single time he talked about God. With that look that said more than anything: I know him.
So, how do we become such witnesses? How do we get that same look in our eye when we talk to others about Jesus? Paradoxically, in part this comes from recognising that we are already witnesses, recognising when we are in God’s presence. It’s the difference between 1) being asked, Have you seen X? and thinking that we haven’t, and 2) being further information about X, and realising that, yes, we have in fact seen this person. And Scripture is our best guide to help us recognise such moments as being in the presence of God.
We see such a moment in our Gospel today St John the Baptist describing what it is like to meet Jesus. And it is convincing not just because it is St John the Baptist, thought that is more than enough. It is convincing because it matches up with other things we know about Jesus, other things we know from personal experiences, personal experiences that Jesus tells us are all about him. And so we can use such descriptions to reverse engineer our lives to find how God is present. So what does St John the Baptist tells us about meeting Jesus? And what does Jesus tell us about meeting him?
St John the Baptist describes a number of aspects of meeting Jesus. First, we hear St John the Baptist experiences Jesus as taking away the sin of the world. Second, we hear that St John the Baptist knows that Jesus exists before him because Jesus is the reason St John the Baptist is here doing what he is doing. Finally, the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus as the Son of God.
If we compare this gospel passage to that section in St Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is talking about the final judgment, we hear Jesus saying the same things about meeting him in the poor and lonely. The same elements appear.
When we meet someone in charity, their very person, their very being calls us into existence. If they are hungry, then we have to feed them. If they are cold, then we try to warm them. If they are lonely, we keep them company, and if they are mourning, we seek to console them. Their being commands us to respond. We know what we have to do through their presence. God is speaking to us through them. They take away the sin of the world because we forget about ourselves in responding to them. First, we are recreated by their presence. Second, we know that we are in that moment precisely for this responsibility.
Moreover, this experience of being called into existence by another person leads to the realisation that, in our world, the other person exists before us. This is because they create us by their presence. Our life in a sense is experienced as dependent on the other person, much like John the Baptist knows he is here simply to point to Jesus. Parents often talk like this.
(One final comment: the figure of St John the Baptist shows us the conditions for such a life, for noticing other people: repentance and denial of self. These free us to be open to others.)
However, again with St John the Baptist, it is only through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we recognise all these encounters with our brothers and sisters in need as truly encounters with Christ, which they are, whether we recognise it or not, just as in the final judgment.
So, we see that what is described in Sacred Scripture is in fact just the deepest truth of our everyday life, that truth that most of the time is too obvious to see because it is the very way we should see. So, we might reflect this week on whether we are taking advantage of the great gift of Scripture. Are we using it like we might, to get the most out of life and in helping those around us? Most especially, are we becoming the witnesses to Christ that the world needs? Witnesses with fire in our eyes, fire that highlights truth, that seeks to burn up injustice and alienation, fire that cannot be ignored, the fire of the Holy Spirit?