In today’s Gospel reading (John 1:29-34), John the Baptist witnesses an enormous manifestation of God’s power at the moment he baptizes our Lord. As a witness of God’s power, he testifies:
“I did not know him, but … Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”
What did John see?
John saw visible signs of divine action under otherwise seemingly normal circumstances. That’s very interesting, because this is incredibly close to how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a sacrament.
“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” — CCC 1131
The old “Penny Catechism” also puts it nicely:
“A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our soul” — 249
In this regard, John’s words “I did not know him,” followed by, “now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God,” are significant and revealing. In the same chapter of John’s Gospel, we read:
“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” — John 1:10-13
Isn’t it interesting that John at first “does not know him,” but when he sees the power of God manifest at the precise moment of this baptism, he comes to accept and believe in him — and what is the sacrament of baptism, if not the sacrament by which we become children of God?
As John was a precursor of Christ, so was his baptism of repentance a precursor of Christ’s baptism of sanctifying grace. We see in John’s baptism of the Lord signs prefiguring the grace of sacramental baptism: the power of the Holy Trinity, a voice from heaven declaring the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.
In the sacramental baptism that makes us children of God, we also see signs: water, which signifies life, purity, and cleansing. Water has a unique power to regenerate a parched body and revitalize a waning soul. Hence Christ institutes baptism as a sacrament of new birth in “water and Spirit” (John 3:5).
The signs of the sacrament are “efficacious signs,” because when the waters of baptism are administered with the accompanying words instituted by the Lord, “I baptize you, [Your Name], in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” that water and those words are not just signs. They really do accomplish what they signify, by instilling the life of grace into the soul!
And to the ones who accept and believe, God gives the power to become children of God! Thus, sacraments really do fulfill the Word of God in Sacred Scripture through the divine action of Jesus Christ, who institutes them. Through all of the sacraments, divine life is dispensed to us and grace is given to our soul.
It is for this reason that John points to Christ and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And it is not just incidental that the priest says these very same words when he elevates the Body and Blood of Christ during the Eucharistic Celebration just before we go up to receive communion. As a sacrament, the Eucharist also has the character of being an efficacious sign of God’s grace, which really is what its signs signify.
Hidden under the veil of ordinary bread and wine, the Lord Jesus Christ is truly present before us at that moment. It is because we have received the gift of faith as children of God that we can see and truly believe.