Question: Two things about St. John the Baptist puzzle me. He denied he was Elijah, though Jesus said he was. He also later asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah or should we look for another?” How can we understand these things?
— Cheryl Bunch, via email
Answer: Regarding St. John the Baptist’s denial that he was Elijah, there are two common explanations. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church (for example, Gregory and Origen) argue that John was only denying that he was Elijah reincarnate, which he presumed the questioners to be asking. He is not specifically denying that he goes about in the spirit and power or office of Elijah.
A second, more psychological explanation, is simply to point to the humanness of John. Part of our journey in this life is to come to understand the man or woman God has created us to be. What the Lord knows of us is surely greater than what we know of ourselves. And thus, Jesus knows of St. John that he is the Elijah figure prophesied in Malachi 4, but John does not yet appreciate this about himself.
As a prophet, St. John accurately points to Christ, but it does not follow that he is infallible in his knowledge of other things, including himself. Hence, if his self-knowledge is flawed or not yet fully understood, it need not trouble us, for he was still inspired by God to recognize the Christ, point to him and prepare others for his coming.
Regarding St. John’s later question to Jesus from jail, “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” the solutions are similar. The Fathers and Doctors of the early Church surmise that St. John is asking this question on behalf of his disciples to reassure them, but that St. John himself had no doubts at all.
The modern and psychological explanation is more willing to accept that perhaps St. John is, to some degree, discouraged. He had presented a picture of the Messiah as ushering in the kingdom in a rather fiery and sudden way, bringing justice for the oppressed (see Mt 3:10). But instead of this, John is oppressed in jail, and Jesus is more gently calling disciples, healing the sick and patiently summoning people to repentance. So perhaps John’s question is authentically his, not just asked on behalf of others.
The approach in this understanding is less to lionize the biblical saints and more to emphasize that even great saints have their struggles and difficulties in understanding God’s ways.
Question: The Gospels say that a sign on the cross said “The King of the Jews” written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Why do our crosses say INRI?
— Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York
Answer: INRI is an abbreviation of the Latin: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum. (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). While some more elaborate crosses do show the full text written in all three languages, most crosses simply use the abbreviation for the sake of brevity and size.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.