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On the Gospel
Given to the People in the Basilica of St. Peter the Apostle
St. Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor
Translated by M.F. Toale, D.D.
PL 74, 1099-1103 (Homily 7).
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 habits.

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 existence.

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 it.

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.