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This piece is occasioned by the Gospel reading on the third Sunday of Advent. From prison, John the Baptist sent his emissaries to Jesus with the question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?” (Mat 11:3). A seemingly innocuous question, but pregnant with meaning. 

In the midst of our frenetic “preparations” for Christmas, could we spare a thought for the Baptist’s question and, more importantly, the answer? The question itself compelled me to reflect on the relationship (double entendre) between John and Jesus. 

It is a double entendre because the relationship can be seen from two perspectives. What was the blood relationship between the two? Again, more importantly, what was the messianic relationship between them? The first question seems simple, that they were cousins. I too erroneously believed that until I did some research for this article. 

Neither Mathew nor Luke’s infancy narratives state that they were related! To the contrary, John’s father Zechariah belonged to the priestly class of the Abijah section, while his wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron (cf Lk 1:5). Both genealogies of Jesus (Mat 1:1-17, Lk 3:23-38) do not mention Aaron in Jesus’ lineage.

Why then did Mary, the pregnant young mother, set out “as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah” (Lk 1:39), to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth? Elizabeth was then 6 months pregnant and Mary stayed with her for the next three months, presumably till the birth of John (cf Lk 1:56). So there must have been some compelling reason, probably a blood relationship, for this act of selfless service, when she herself was expecting. We do know that the first trimester of pregnancy is often the most difficult.

The highly respected “Dictionary of the Bible” by Rev John McKenzie SJ has this to say about the infancy narratives and the relationship. “The primitive church possessed little or no living memory of the infancy and childhood of Jesus … the kinship of Jesus and John is very probably a piece of genuine tradition”.

Based on these sketchy narratives the presumption is that Mary and Elizabeth, and thereby Jesus and John, were closely related. The term “cousin” probably did not exist in the Hebrew language. That is why Jesus’ relatives are subsequently referred to as his brothers (cf Mk 3:32). Ironically these blood relations had no faith in him, despising and even opposing him (cf Jn 7:5, Mk 3:21). They considered him to be the carpenter’s son (cf Mk 6:3) prompting Jesus to rue that “A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house” and “he could work no miracle there” (Mk 6:4,5). Jesus himself “was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mk 6:6). 

In like manner, do we baptised Christians also take Jesus for granted, for familiarity breeds contempt? Is that why he cannot work miracles among us? Have liturgical and ecclesiastical traditions overshadowed a dynamic, living faith? In the run-up to Christmas, we need to ask ourselves these questions.

Now to the moot question. What was the messianic or missionary relationship between the “cousins”? How do we answer John’s last question to Jesus?

Devout Catholics religiously recite the Rosary that includes the second Joyful Mystery, the Visitation. After years of recitation do we still find it a “mystery”? I find it one of the most profound events in the lives of Mary, Jesus and John. Look at the chain of events.

When the Word is addressed to Mary she is filled with the Holy Spirit (cf Lk 1:35). The Word becomes flesh (Jn 1:14), and is incarnated in her. Thereafter, when she greets Elizabeth, the babe in the latter’s womb leaps for joy (cf Lk 1:62). The Word is communicated and incarnated in John. Mary is therefore the first evangelist, which is why she is called the Queen of the Apostles. It is not a mere honorific.

The relationship with John is then seen in the next chapter of Jesus’ life, his baptism. The Holy Spirit is again manifest powerfully (cf Jn 1:24ff). Surely John sensed who Jesus was, declaring, “He who comes after me has passed ahead of me because he existed before me (Jn 1:15). He identified Jesus as “the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:30). And again, “I have seen and I testify that he is the Chosen One of God” (Jn 1:34).

In all humility, at the height of his own personal popularity, John affirms “I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandal” (Jn 1:27). Was there a mutual admiration society between the two? For Jesus in turn says “In truth, I tell you, of all the children born to women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Mat 11:11). This being so, what was the need for John to later enquire if Jesus was indeed the One?

There could have been two probable reasons for John’s second thoughts. Perhaps, like the rest of Israel, he too may have expected the Messiah to come in power and might. There were also their contrasting lifestyles, poignantly expressed by Jesus himself. “John came neither eating nor drinking and they say – He is possessed. The Son of man came, eating and drinking, and they say – Look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mat 11:18-19). While on the one hand, Jesus had lived a low profile “normal” life as a carpenter (cf Lk 2:51), John was an ascetic, a public figure, a voice crying in the wilderness (Mat 3:3). 

John’s ascetic life was foretold by the angel to his father Zechariah, “He must drink no wine, no strong drink” (Lk 1:15). His parents would surely have conveyed this message to John early in life. Recent research of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Qumran caves indicate that John, who was baptising people in the Jordan River that ends in the Dead Sea, may have been further influenced by the ascetics in the area.

Jesus and John were not just poles apart; they even had separate sets of disciples, who pursued diverse paths even after their deaths. This is evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles when Paul went to Ephesus and came across John’s disciples. He had to “convert” them to disciples of Jesus! From John’s baptism of repentance, he led them to baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf Acts 19:1-7). It is for this reason that I term Jesus and John the Contrasting, yet Complementary, Cousins who had earlier complimented each other.

The second probable reason for John’s anxious query is because of the exigencies in which he was then placed. He was imprisoned by Herod and death was imminent, so he may have had second thoughts. Was it worth dying for a cause if he was not sure of it? He needed the reassurance that Jesus gave saying “Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin diseases are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor, and blessed is anyone who does not find me a cause of falling” (Mat 11:4-5). Jesus’ words are indeed an assurance of life after death, for faltering steps.

Not much later Jesus himself would be facing his own impending death. He would have seen the tortuous form of the Roman crucifixions. Now that his time had come, he too needed reassurance from the Father that his sacrifice would not go in vain. The raising of Lazarus at Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, was just before his final entry into the holy city. It is here that he declares, “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though the person dies, will live” (Jn 11:26). 

This was Jesus’ final epiphany (manifestation) after which he prayed, “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer. I myself knew that you hear me always (Jn 11:42). This was the final nail in Jesus’ coffin for “from that day onwards they were determined to kill him” (Jn 11:53).

We now see that John’s question and Jesus’ answer echo across time. We need to heed both. Whether we live an ascetic life like John or a “worldly” one like Jesus, the call to discipleship stands. After extolling the heroic virtues of John, Jesus adds, “Yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Mat 11:12); for with the promise of the Holy Spirit the disciples would “perform even greater works” (Jn 14:12). 

This Christmas may we also believe and proclaim “The one who attests these things says: I am indeed coming soon. Amen. Come Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).

  • The writer contributes regularly on spiritual themes.

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