1. In the words of this lesson the humility of John is
commended to us, who, though he was of such virtue, that he could have
been accepted as the Christ, chose steadfastly to remain as himself, so
that he was not foolishly raised above himself by human esteem. For he
confessed and did not deny, and he confessed: I am not the Christ.
But by saying I am not he clearly denied that he was that which
he was not, but did not deny that which he was; so that speaking the truth,
he became His member Whose name he would not falsely usurp. For since he
sought not the name of the Christ, he was made a member of Christ; because
while he humbly sought to make clear his own lowliness, he thereby truly
merited to share in His glory.
But from this portion of the Gospel that was read to us, some other
words of Christ are brought to our memory, which give rise to an involved
question. In another place, Our Saviour, being questioned by His Disciples
concerning the coming of Elias, replied: Elias is already come, and
they knew not, but they have done unto him whatsoever they had a mind and
if you will receive it, John himself is Elias (Mt. xvii. 12; xi. 14).
John, however, being questioned, says: I am not Elias. What is
this, Brethren, that what Truth affirms, the prophet of Truth denies? There
is a wide difference between, He is and, I am not. How then
can he be the prophet of Truth, if, in his words, he is not in agreement
with this same Truth?
But if the truth itself is carefully looked into, that which sounds
contradictory, will be found not to be contradictory. For the Angel said
to Zachary concerning John: and he shall go before Him in the spirit
and power of Elias (Lk. i. 17). He is here said to come in the spirit
and power of Elias, because, as Elias will precede the Second Coming of
the Lord, so John precedes His First Coming. As the former is the Precursor
of the Judge to come, the latter was made the Precursor of the Redeemer.
John therefore in spirit was Elias, he was not Elias in person. What the
Lord therefore declares as to the spirit, John denies of the person; as
was fitting, as the Lord was giving utterance to a spiritual reflection
regarding the character of John to His Disciples, while John was answering
a carnal people, not concerning his spirit, but concerning his body; what
John uttered seems contrary to truth, yet in no way does it depart from
the path of truth.
2. But since he also denies that he was the Prophet, because not alonewas
he to foretell the Redeemer, but also to point Him out, he goes on to say
who he is, when he continues: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
You know, Dearest Brethren, that the Only— Begotten Son is called the Word
of the Father, as John testifies when he says: In the beginning was
the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
From your own speech you are aware that the voice first sounds, that
the word may then be heard. John accordingly declares that he is a Voice,
because he precedes the Word. Going before the Lord, Who is coming, he
is called a voice, because through his ministry the Word of the Lord is
heard by men. He also cries out in the desert, because he is announcing
to the lost and unhappy Judea the consolation of her Redeemer.
What it is that he cries out, he goes on to say: Make straight the
way of the Lord, as saith the prophet Isaias. The way of the
Lord to the heart is made straight, when His words of truth are received
with humility. The way of the Lord to the heart is made straight,
when our life is lived in harmony with His precepts. Hence was it
written: if any one love Me, he will keep my word, and My Father will
love him, and We will come to him, and make our abode with him (Jn.
xiv. 23). Whosoever therefore lifts up his heart in pride, whosoever burns
with the fever of avarice, whosoever soils himself with the defilement
of lust, closes the gate of his heart against the entrance of Truth, and,
lest the Lord gain entrance, he fastens the gates with the locks of evil
3. But they that were sent were insistent in their questioning: why
then dost thou baptize, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the Prophet?
This was said, not out of desire to learn the truth, but from an evil desire
to foment discord; as the Evangelist implies when he says: and
they that were sent, were of the Pharisees; as if he were openly to
say: these people question John about his actions, because they know not
how to inquire as to doctrine, only to be envious regarding it. But
no devout person is ever turned aside from his zeal for what is good, even
when confronted with a person of perverse mind. So likewise John,
who answers the words of envy with the words of eternal life. For
forthwith he replies: I baptize with water; but there hath stood one
in the midst of you, whom you know not.
John baptizes, not with the Holy Ghost, but with water,
because, being unable to forgive sins, he washes with water the bodies
of those whom he baptizes; but their souls he cannot wash in pardon. Why
then does he baptize, who cannot by his baptism, forgive sins, unless that,
maintaining the order of his office of Precursor, he who in his birth preceded
Him that was to be born, likewise, by baptizing, preceded the Lord Who
was to baptize; and he who in preaching became the Precursor of Christ,
became likewise His Precursor in baptizing, in imitation of the sacrament?
Who likewise while he was in this ways announcing the Mystery of our
redemption, declares that This is already in the midst of men, and unknown
to them; because the Lord, appearing in the flesh, was visible in His Body,
but invisible in Majesty. Of Whom he also says: He that comes
after me, is preferred before me. For, is preferred before me
is so said, as if to say, Who Was before me. He comes after me therefore,
because He was born after me; He is preferred before me, because He was
before me. Speaking a little later, he adds this very reason, why
He was preferred, when he says: because He was before me; as if
to say: though born after me, He is far above me, because with Him the
times of His Nativity impose no straitening. For He that in time
was born of a mother, was Begotten of the Father before all time.
What reverence is due to Him he then teaches us by his own humility;
going on to say: the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.
It was a custom of the ancients, that if a man were not willing to retain
the woman who was his wife, that he should untie the shoes of the one who
came by right of kinship to claim her as bride. How has Christ appeared
among men, except as the Bridegroom of the Church? Of Whom also the
same John says: He that has the Bride is the Bridegroom (Jn. iii.
29). But as men believed that John was the Christ, which he denied,
he rightly makes it plain, that he is unworthy to untie His shoes.
As if he were openly to say: I am not worthy to uncover the feet of the
Redeemer, and the title of Bridegroom, which is not mine, I shall not usurp.
This may be understood in yet another way. Who does not know that
sandals are made from the skins of dead animals? The Lord, in becoming
Incarnate, appears among men, as though shod; because over His Divinity,
he has put on as it were the mortal covering of our corruptibility.
Hence also the prophet says: Into Edom will I stretch out my shoe (Ps.
xv. 10). The Gentiles are signified by Edom; His assumed mortality
by the shoe. The Lord therefore declares that He extends His shoe
into Edom, because through the flesh He became known to the Gentiles; as
if the Divinity had come to us with feet shod.
But the human eye does not suffice to penetrate the mystery of this
incarnation. For in no way may we search out how the Word became embodied;
how the Supreme Life-Giving Spirit, was quickened within the womb of a
mother; how That Which has no beginning was both conceived and came into
The latchets of His shoe are therefore the seals of a mystery.
John was not worthy to loose His shoe, because he was unable to search
into the mystery of His Incarnation. What then does he mean when
he says, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose, except openly
and humbly to confess his ignorance? It is as though he were to say:
what wonder that He is preferred before me, Whom I know to be born after
me, but the Mystery of Whose Birth I am unable to comprehend. Behold
John, filled with the Spirit of prophecy, shining with knowledge, yet he
plainly declares that as to this mystery he knows nothing.
4. In this connection, Dearest Brethren, we should note and ponder with
careful thought, how holy men of God, in order to safeguard themselves
in humility, when they know many things well, endeavour to keep before
their minds that which they do not know, so that on the one hand, they
remind themselves of their own limitations, and on the other, they are
not raised above themselves because of those things in which their mind
is accomplished. Knowledge indeed is virtue, but humility is the
guardian of virtue. For the future then, let you be humble in your
minds with regard to whatever you may know, lest what the virtue of knowledge
has stored, the wind of vanity may carry off.
When therefore, Dearest Brethren, you do any good, ever recall to memory
the sins you may have committed, so that while you are discreetly mindful
of the evil you may have done, your mind will never indiscreetly rejoice
over the good you do. Let each esteem his neighbour as better than
himself, especially those who are strange to you, even those whom you see
do that which is wrong, because you know not the good that may be hidden
in them. Let each one seek to be worthy of esteem, yet let him be
as if he knew not that he was, lest haughtily claiming esteem, he lose
Hence was it also said by the prophet: Woe to you that are wise in
your own eyes, and prudent in your own conceits (Is. v. 21).
Hence likewise Paul says: be not wise in your own conceits (Rom.
xii. 16). Against Saul who had grown proud, was it said; when
thou wast a little one in thine own eyes, wast thou not made the head of
the tribes of Israel (I Kgs. xv. 17); as if it were openly said: when
you looked upon yourself as but a youth, I raised you above others, but
because you now look upon yourself as a great man, by Me you are regarded
as a child.
David on the contrary, holding as nothing the dignity of his kingship,
danced before the ark of the covenant, saying: I will both play
and make myself meaner than I have done: and I will be little in my own
eyes (II Kgs. vi. 22). Whom it hath not exalted to break the
jaws of lions, to overcome the strength of bears, to be chosen while his
elder brothers are set aside, to be anointed in the place of the rejected
king, to lay low with one stone the warrior dreaded by all, to bring back
the number of foreskins desired by the king, having avenged the kings enemies,
to receive a kingdom by promise, to possess the whole Israelitish people
without challenge (I Kgs. xvii. 37; II Kgs. xii. 7; I Kgs. xvii. 25, 28,
49; II Kgs. vu. 12, 16); yet with all this he despised himself, and confessed
that he was but little in his own eyes.
If therefore holy men, even when they do mighty things, think themselves
worthless, what must be said of those who, without fruit of virtue, are
yet swollen with pride? But any works, although they be good, are
as nothing unless seasoned with humility. A great deed done boastfully,
lowers rather than uplifts a man. He who would gather virtue without
humility, carries dust in the wind; and where he seems to possess something,
from the same is he blinded and made worse.
In all things whatsoever, Dearest Brethren, that you do, hold fast to
humility, as to the root of every good work. Pay not heed to the
things in which you are better than others, but to those in which you are
worse; so that while you keep before you the example of those that are
better than yourself, you may, through humility, be enabled to ascend to
greater things, by the bountiful mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom
be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen.