I Am Not

I Am Not

Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday). Fr Benjamin Earl preaches on the identity of Christ, and our own identity.

St John’s Gospel is very clear about the divine identity of Christ. The prologue to the Gospel, a small part of which we read today, speaks of him as the Word which was in the beginning with God and which is God. Jesus himself repeatedly uses the phrase ‘I am’, echoing the divine name revealed to Moses in the burning bush.

There seems, though, to be rather more confusion about the identity of St John the Baptist, also introduced in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. Unlike St Luke’s Gospel, there is no infancy narrative here telling us about the origins of the Baptist; and while St Matthew has Jesus say that, in a certain sense, ‘[John] is Elijah who is to come’ (Mt 11:14), the Fourth Gospel is a lot more cautious on this point and others regarding the Baptist’s identity.

The Gospel that repeatedly has Christ say ‘I am’, emphasises with the Baptist ‘I am not’: ‘He was not the light’ says the prologue (Jn 1:8); ‘I am not the Christ’ (Jn 1:20) says John himself, before going on to say he is not Elijah (Jn 1:21) and he is not the Prophet (Jn 1:21). Christ is; the Baptist is not.

A similar dichotomy can be found in the thought of St Catherine of Siena. She relates a question of the eternal Father, ‘Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will have beatitude within your grasp.’ And the answer: ‘You are she who is not, and I am he who is’ (Bl. Raymond of Capua, Life of Catherine of Siena, 92).

What can this mean? St Catherine of Siena indubitably existed; her relics can be venerated in both Siena and Rome. John the Baptist indubitably existed. How can we say ‘she is not’ or ‘he is not’? Both these saints acknowledge that their very existence depends on God; only because God holds them in being do they exist, and the questions ‘who am I?’ or ‘what does my life mean?’ cannot be answered except by answering the question ‘how do I relate to God?’

The Fourth Gospel answers this question for the Baptist. ‘There was a man, sent from God,’ we read (Jn 1:6). Then, after a series of ‘I am nots’, finally there is an ‘I am’: ‘I am the voice of one crying…’ (Jn 1:23). John is the one sent by God; he is the voice crying the word of God. He is God’s instrument in making known the coming of our salvation.

The first sin of humanity was to stop asking, ‘how do I relate to God?’ and to wonder instead, ‘how can I do without God?’ In doing so, we not only lost God, but we also lost ourselves, for divorced from God our lives make no sense. Only in relation to him can we know our true identity. The beginning of accepting redemption from our sin is found in realising that in fact we cannot do without God, and in accepting that ‘I am not’ except insofar as I relate to God.

We need always to ask again what that relationship with God, the ground of our being, should be. The answer will inevitably vary. The Christian calling can take many different forms, but we all share some of what characterises the mission of the Baptist. We have all been called; we are all sent into the world to proclaim, to cry in this wilderness, the good news that the relationship God has with his people is one of love, a love he showed by sending his Son. For those who will answer God’s call, the promise made to St Catherine is real: beatitude is placed within our grasp.

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11|1 Thessalonians 5:16-24|John 1:6-8,19-28

Fr Benjamin Earl is Procurator General of the Order of Preachers, responsible for representing the Order to the Holy See and for canonical issues in the Order's General Curia