Jesus tells us in today's gospel:
Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.
Yet John the Baptist is puzzled. For all his greatness, he is not quite sure what to think of the things he has heard of the Christ. Is Jesus the Christ? Or something else? So far, for all his preaching and miracle-working, Jesus doesn't seem to have been doing much baptising 'with the Holy Spirit and with Fire' as John predicted in last week's gospel.
So in part, today's story of the exchange between John's disciples and Jesus is an attempt to answer the puzzlement. The things that Jesus has been doing—healing the blind, the lame, lepers and the deaf, and preaching the good news—are the things that the prophet Isaiah in our first reading says will accompany the coming not just of a Messiah, but of God himself: 'Behold, your God... he will come and save you.'
John, whether he himself realises it or not, is the voice that cries, 'in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord'. Jesus is the Christ, and much more besides: he is the Lord God himself come to save his people. 'The Lord saves' is what the name Jesus means.
I suppose if all we had to say today was that Jesus is Lord, we would have said plenty. But there is more. Why does John the Baptist not realise who Jesus is, when not long afterwards Peter is able to say with confidence, and on behalf of all the disciples, 'you are the Christ, the Son of the living God'? John, the greatest among those born of women, cannot work out what is clear to the simple fisherman. What is the difference here between Peter and John? Or, to put it differently, how do we know who Jesus is?
I'm sure many of us will have had the experience of getting to know well somebody that previously we knew only from a distance: perhaps our in-laws or a new colleague or classmate whom over time we get to know as a close friend. Very often we discover that the person we get to know intimately is not at all the sort of person we might have expected beforehand.
Jesus tells John's disciples, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see'. That is how we know who Jesus is: by listening to him, by watching him, by being with him, by talking to him: in the normal ways we would get to know anybody else. Peter and the others know who Jesus is because they interact with him in all the normal human ways, while the Baptist has only known him from a distance.
What is so marvellous about Jesus is not so much that he is God, but that he is God who has taken to himself our human nature. He has become a man whom we can get to know.
This great gift is what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas. We may give it the grand theological title of 'incarnation', but in its essence what it means is that in Jesus Christ we can get to know God in a way that would not otherwise be possible, and by getting to know him, we enter his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven.
Obviously the ways we interact with Christ these days are different from those that our predecessors used during his life and ministry. But those forebears, like the disciples of John, have told us what they heard and saw. We have been left the great gifts of the scriptures through which we hear God's Word, and the sacraments in which God reaches out to us by means of visible and tangible signs. In these, and in all our prayers, we interact in a very human way with Christ, who is both man and God.
Our prayer in this time of preparation for Christmas should be that we ourselves, and those who are separated from Christ by captivity or for any other reason, may continue to get to know him better, so that at the end he may be not just our master, our teacher, our saviour, our king and our God, but also our friend.