What is the true identity of John the Baptist? The religious authorities of the period were worried, because a popular movement typical of a Messiah with grave political repercussions was developing around John. Therefore, they sent messengers to him asking: “Who are you?”
I. Who he’s not
In that period, there was great hope that the Messiah might arrive at any moment. Naturally, the Messiah, understood as a new David, a political figure, a liberator of Israel’s oppressors. Therefore, the first question of the priests and Levites is very clear, very sincere: “Are you the Christ?” (Christ means “anointed one”, or in Hebrew, the Messiah—which means “liberator” in a political sense). John denies this affirmation. I am not the Christ (Jn 1:20).
So, in this context, what other possibilities remain? Before the coming of the Messiah, the Bible speaks about the return of the prophet Elijah. In fact, in the book of the prophet Malachi, it is written: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes… (Mal 4:5), and Jesus himself says of John: and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come (Mt 11:14). Therefore, they were looking for a precursor – perhaps John was the reincarnation of Elijah? But, again, John denies this affirmation: I’m not Elijah (Jn 1:21).
The messengers of the Pharisees kept trying. There existed in that period of time another school of thought, which held that before the coming of the Messiah, “a prophet” was to come in the wake of Moses. In the Old Testament, Moses says: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed (Deut 18:15). At the time of Jesus, the people waited for this prophet, as we can see elsewhere from the Gospel of St. John: When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world! (Jn 6:14). The people attributed this role to Jesus, and even to John the Baptist. But he denies this affirmation, too. To the question, “Are you the prophet?”, John responds: “No” (cf. Jn 1:21)
II. Who he is
His questioners were by now a bit exasperated: If you’re not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet, then who are you? What do you say about yourself? (Jn 1:22). And John responds, using a series of images. He is the voice crying out in the desert. He is the voice, but Jesus is the Word. There is a big difference! John baptizes with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Ubi maior, cesset minor. In the presence of someone more important, the lesser important one must vanish.
John describes his role as one of a servant, whose task is to untie the thong of his Master’s sandal. John protests that he isn’t even worthy to serve as a servant: we see how important his Master is!
Finally, in a later passage, John describes himself as the “friend of the groom”. He explains to his listeners: You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom, he who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at his bridegroom’s voice (Jn 3:28-29).
If we carefully reflect on today’s Gospel, we see that the fundamental question is the true identity of John and the true identity of Jesus. In other words, Scripture teaches us this importance of knowing oneself and knowing God. “Who are you?” is the question that Scripture asks us today. “What do you say about yourself?” For John, the risk was a mistaken identity – people thought that he was the Christ. Even we put ourselves in the place of God, thinking that we can completely control our lives, thinking that we can control the lives of others, thinking that we’re the Savior, thinking we’re in charge.
An important discovery in the spiritual life is the awareness that we’re not God, that we’re not in charge—but that we depend on God, that we live as creatures, not as the Creator. In this attitude of humility, we discover true joy. John—who isn’t the bridegroom, and he knows this well—finds great joy in hearing the voice of the bridegroom. The Biblical text uses a Hebraism: “gaudio gaudet”—rejoice with joy. John experiences this joy at the voice of the bridegroom, as if this voice comes from afar—will he be able to see his face? Will he be able to see his presence? If our awareness of God were so intimate, we would say with St. John: Therefore, this joy of mine is now full (Jn 3:29).
John the Baptist explains to us the meaning of this Sunday, which we call “Gaudete”—showing us that true joy consists in being in the presence of the Spouse. God is God, and I’m not he; on the contrary, I totally depend on him, but not in a negative sense. I depend on him as a friend depends on a spouse and rejoices at his voice. In fact, at the presence of the Lord, our hearts will rejoice and no one can take away that joy (cf. Jn 16:22-23).
Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.