They were cousins, so why, in today’s Gospel, does John the Baptist suggest twice that he doesn’t know Jesus? There’s an explanation, a hypothesis based on modern history—since the Bible itself doesn’t speak of it—and it seems a plausible explanation. The family of John the Baptist lived in Judea, while the Holy Family lived in Galilee, so the geographic distance would have restricted frequent visits, even if the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem would have given them the chance to see each other. But John’s parents were advanced in years (Lk 1:7) and were probably going to die while John was still young.
Moreover, the young boy grew up in desert regions, says the Gospel—he was probably raised in the community of the Essenes, specifically separated from society, without much contact with the world outside the sect of the Essenes. At the point in which John began his prophetic ministry, it’s quite possible that the two cousins hadn’t had direct contact in years. John would have heard about Jesus, but he wouldn’t have personally known him. Jesus’ identity would have been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, so he would have known his true identity; then, John immediately would have started to bear witness to him: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (Jn 1:29).
Since John was a very charismatic person, many thought that he was the Messiah. So he had to clear things up right away, to explain that he was not the light itself, but came to bear witness to the light (Jn 1:8). In the beautiful words of the Gospel, John proclaims: He must increase and I must decrease (Jn 3:30).
The Book of the Bible
Scripture contains passages which describe well the rapport between John and Jesus. The Church Fathers collect these texts, and have this commentary to say:
John was the light; Jesus is the sun.
The Baptist was the voice, Christ was the Word.
One is the friend; the other is the spouse.
John is the greatest among those born of women, but Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. The Baptist leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, while Christ, still hidden in his mother’s womb, received his adoration. One traveled around; the other already appeared.
All of these biblical allusions are unanimous; with one voice, they affirm the same thing: He must increase and I must decrease (Jn 3:30).
The Book of Creation
But the books of the Bible aren’t the only place in which we can read the Word of God; there’s also the book of creation. Even the created world – the sun, the moon, the stars – all of creation bears witness to the rapport between John and Jesus.
The birth of St. John is celebrated on June 24th, in the moment of the summer solstice. From that point onward, daylight begins to reduce. On the other hand, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ is celebrated on December 25th, during the winter solstice. From that point onward, daylight begins to grow, to get longer.
So we can see that the book of the created world and the beauty of the heavens repeat the conclusions of Scripture: He must increase and I must decrease (Jn 3:30).
Today’s liturgy offers a word of salvation, the secret to happiness, the key to open the doors of heaven. We have just heard this word, we know the secret, and we have received the key. It’s now our turn to take up this key and use it: “Christ must increase and I must decrease.”
(Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.)