There is an interesting little parallelism which occurs in the Gospel passage today. The text says that when Jesus passed by John the Baptist ‘looked hard at him’ and said, ‘Look, there is the Lamb of God.’ Then later on Jesus ‘looked hard at Peter’ and said, ‘You are to be called Cephas, meaning rock.’
Different translations have chosen to render these words slightly differently. In the Catholic Church in the British Isles we generally use the Jerusalem translation and it has the words ‘looked hard’ but other translations say just ‘looked at him’ or sometimes they translate the two phrases slightly differently having one as ‘saw him’ and the other as ‘looked at him’.
Now I’m no Greek scholar, but the commentaries say that the very same word in Greek is used for both. This word ‘emblepein’ literally means to fix one’s eye upon someone. Now, it might seem a very small point but I think these two occurrences of the same word ought to be translated exactly the same. And clearly here this word when translated ought to mean something much more than a merely passing glance.
I believe that this fixing of the eyes by John the Baptist on Jesus and then by Jesus on Peter is a deep recognition by both of them that the object of their attention has real and vital significance.
Clearly identifying the Messiah is the very purpose of John’s mission and when Jesus passes him by on that particular occasion John fixes his eyes on him and in that moment of recognition he becomes fully aware that this truly is the Messiah and the time for him to be revealed has now arrived.
I think the very same thing happens when Jesus encounters Peter. He fixes his eyes on Peter and at that moment knows that this is the man who will head up the Church once Jesus himself has returned to the Father.
What we are dealing with here then is a moment of recognition, a critical point when the significance of a person’s role suddenly becomes clear. It is as if the scales fall from the eyes and the full understanding of the importance of the object of one’s attention is arrived at in a moment of profound insight.
John’s whole aim and purpose in life was to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. It sounds as if he worked very hard to do this and he fulfilled this mission as well as he could. We must not forget that he obviously knew Jesus who was one of his cousins, after all. But it seems as though it was only at that specific moment when he walked by that John suddenly understood precisely who Jesus really was.
John’s two disciples do not need any urging; they have been so well prepared by their master that they simply leave him standing there and begin to follow Christ. They ask Jesus where he lives and he responds with the famous words, ‘Come and see.’
Now it might surprise us that John does not follow Jesus himself, but from that moment steps into the background. I think that we have to realise that John knows that his mission is now accomplished and he has nothing more of significance to do. Neither does he need disciples anymore and so is quite content that they take up with Jesus. John steps into the background and we hear no more about him until we are told of his grisly death at the hands of the brutal King Herod.
The second of these knowing looks occurs between Jesus and Peter, but I think that in this case it is more for Peter’s benefit than for that of Jesus. It is a look of recognition and an understanding by Jesus that the right man has been found for the work in hand. But you can imagine that look in the eye had far more effect on Peter than it did on Jesus.
It is hard for us to imagine, but to suddenly be introduced to the Messiah and for him to look you in the eye in a most powerful way must have been most disconcerting for Peter. Then for him to make a pun on your name and call you ‘rock’ when surely Peter was feeling anything other than rocklike. His knees were probably like jelly. He most likely realised at that moment that Jesus had something in store for him but didn’t yet know what.
There is another interesting little detail in the text; it states that this discovery of Jesus took place at the tenth hour, in other words at four o’clock in the afternoon. We know that John was writing his Gospel something more than fifty years after the events in question and yet he still recalls the exact time at which this moment of recognition occurred.
In addition, you might have noticed that there were two disciples who followed Jesus and yet only Andrew’s name is given in the text. We know that John never referred to himself directly in his Gospel. Instead of his name he usually says ‘the disciple Jesus loved’. The scholars argue therefore that the disciple whose name is not given is most likely to be John.
The reason John remembers the time so clearly, even fifty years later, is because he was there. And he knows exactly what the time was because that encounter with Christ was undoubtedly the most significant event of his life.
If we were asked the question as to what was the most significant moment in our life we might answer the day I met my partner in life or the birth of our first child or something similar. But John has it absolutely right; the most significant moment in life for us is when we met Our Blessed Lord for the very first time and recognised precisely who he was.
It is at that moment that we are faced with the choice of whether to follow Christ or not, to become his disciple or not. John knows the profound significance of that moment and realises the completely transforming effect that this encounter has had on him. It led to him dedicating his whole life to the cause of the Gospel and to the spreading of belief in Jesus Christ, the one true Saviour of the World.
There is a lesson for us here and it is that we should scrape the dust from our memories and try to recapture that moment when we realised the true significance of Jesus Christ and made the decision to follow him. That was the one really life changing moment that has occurred to us, it is the crucial event that opened us up to the transformative power of a relationship with our Divine Saviour and set us on the royal road to heaven.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket