“What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” So asked the 2nd-century Church father Tertullian, rankling to think that the pagan city has any relation to the holiest of holy cities—and the site of our Lord’s death and resurrection.

In answer to this question, we can say, “More than you might think, Tertullian.”

In fact, two men who represent the best that these two cities had achieved in human history, the Athenian philosopher Socrates and Jerusalem’s famous preacher St. John the Baptist, share a remarkable affinity in their approach to the truth: each in his own way proclaims wisdom by admitting that he only knows that he does not know. The achievement of such knowledge not only constitutes human firsts in the respective cities of reason and faith but points acutely to the mystery of Christ’s coming during Advent—and indeed prepares for that coming in the hearts of the faithful. From the wisdom these two men shared, we can learn much about how to approach Advent in its liturgical, epistemological, and eschatological dimensions. In these co-exemplars of the limits of natural human excellence, we find models of the humility that alone can prepare the way for Christ who seeks to find a dwelling in our emptiness and convey his saving mysteries to his beloved.

When our Lord teaches that a grain of wheat remains just a grain of wheat unless it die, or that any man who seeks to find his life must lose it, is he giving us a new commandment or evangelical counsel? No. He is simply reminding us of the way things are: that ultimate fulfillment is only found through a self-emptying—and that ultimate knowledge is only found through an unknowing.

Socrates is claimed to be the wisest man in all of Athens, the city of reason. “And I am called wise,” says the sage Socrates, “for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.”


City of Reason

The year is 426 B.C. and the place is Athens, Greece. It was during this time that this city bore witness to a philosophical and literary Golden Age—an age which produced that great quartet of playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, known for their tragedies, and Aristophanes, known for his ribald comedies. Athens at that time also gave rise to that trio of great minds, Socrates, his student Plato, and Plato’s student, Aristotle, on which the foundations of Western philosophy rest secure.

Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, asks the Oracle at Delphi if there is a wiser man in Athens than Socrates. The Oracle answers by claiming that there is no man in Athens wiser than Socrates. Perplexed by this, Socrates takes it upon himself to find a man who is wiser than he. He cannot. And so, on trial for his life, he admits before the court: “And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing…. He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.”[1]

Socrates is claimed to be the wisest man in all of Athens, the city of reason. But why should a Catholic concern himself with the claims of a pagan oracle? Because as our Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas affirms, in a way that can be somewhat jarring to the modern faithful, there is reason to believe that this pagan oracle was indeed Divinely inspired. “Multis gentilium facta fuit revelatio,” (“Revelation has been made to many pagans.”),[2] says St. Thomas. His specific example of such revelation even includes the gentile oracles, noting, “it is likely that the mystery of our redemption was revealed to many Gentiles before Christ’s coming, as is clear from the Sibylline prophecies.”[3] This wisdom of Socrates was in its day uniquely apophatic; that is to say, he was the first to know he did not know, and in this act of unknowing, prepares the city of reason to receive Wisdom itself. As St. Paul, who is sent to fulfill the unknowing of the Athenians centuries later, acclaims, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).


City of Faith

Like Socrates, the Baptist’s excellence is characterized in apophatic terms: “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’”

But the Gentiles did not have a monopoly on such humble erudition. Jerusalem, the city of faith, is similarly prepared through the person of St. John the Baptist. Commenting on the prophesy of the Baptist, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that St. John is “more than a prophet” because he synthetically acts in salvation history as the end (terminus) of the Old Law and the beginning (initium) of the Gospel. Not only in word but in deed does the Forerunner initiate the entrance of Christ into the hearts of men. As St. Thomas notes, “John was not only a prophet, but ‘more than a prophet,’ as stated in Matthew 11:9: for he was the term of the Law and the beginning of the Gospel. Therefore it was in his province to lead men, both by word and deed, to the law of Christ rather than to the observance of the Old Law.”[4]

Like Socrates, the Baptist’s excellence is characterized in apophatic terms, that is, by self-denial: “And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No’” (John 1:19-21).

John recognized that his excellence was characterized by his awareness of one infinitely greater than himself. Indeed, so the Church teaches, “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude.”[5] St. John’s expression of this dissimilitude is strong, but his words represent also a notable first among Old Testament figures whose deeds are famously sordid (at their worst). Moses was a murderer; David and Abraham were adulterers; Jonah was disobedient; Elijah was a coward who begged for death—the list goes on. As the best man of the Old Covenant, the Baptist prepares the world to receive her Bridegroom, not only in his prophesy, but by his very life.

But if the greatest mind of Athens and the greatest believer in Jerusalem share an affinity for such humble wisdom, Athens and Jerusalem find their confluence in Rome—the city of Faith and Reason. In God’s loving providence, he prepares both cities for his entry, as he prepares our intellects and our wills, through ascetic self-denial. As such, these men stand as exemplars of the ascetic dimensions of the mystical life.

As the oracle says of Socrates that no man is wiser, Our Lord says of the Baptist, “among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Lk. 17:28). Christ is drawing us to an awareness of natural, human excellence—the greatest we can be by our own power, and so the most prepared to receive him wholly, both in his nativity and in his Eschaton, that is, is second coming. This is the purgative way; it is the via negativa. And it constitutes the fundamental liturgical disposition of the Church during Advent: self-emptying, self-denying, unknowing. “This is the ultimate in human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know Him.”[6]


The Forerunner

When St. John the Baptist first encounters his Lord, he does so in great joy, but as through a beautiful darkness, the darkness of the womb. Like the Baptist, we can only encounter our Lord for the first time through this beautiful darkness, a darkness of wonder.  It is not only the darkness of Elizabeth’s womb, but the darkness of the cave in Bethlehem. It is the same beautiful darkness in which we as a Church now find ourselves, that of a mystical body waiting-in-utero with hope, pain, and anxiety for our ineffable birth into the light. It is this darkness that St. John of the Cross teaches is necessary for a soul to journey to union with God.[7] And this darkness through which the soul must pass intensifies gradually, from an active purification of the senses through darkness, to a passive purification of the senses through darkness, to a total purification of the spirit through darkness as she moves more deeply into the mystical life of Christ. For the soul, as for the Church-in-utero, this process of growth through darkness into Christ’s life increases in intensity as it approaches its terminus. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

Analogously, the darkness through which St. John the Baptist first knows God—that of a joy-filled womb—later gives way to two kinds of darkness of increasing intensity: that of human (though faith-filled) uncertainty—“So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (John 7:18-19)—and ultimately to the decisive and painful darkness of Herod’s dungeon where the Baptist is born into light through the shedding of his blood. Only to the extent that the Baptist decreases, can Christ increase. In our hearts and in the Church, Christ who is light and life of men finds dwelling in our emptiness. The Baptist’s ever deepening movements into this life-giving darkness are an exemplary prefigurement of the soul ascetically moving to the end of itself and into Divine union as well as the mystical body of Christ moving into triumphal, eschatological union with her King.


Good News: John and John

The beautiful darkness of the forerunner gives way to the ineffable splendor of the Lamb. Throughout Advent and Christmas, we see that the Church’s liturgical readings (both in the new and traditional calendars) convey John the Evangelist’s charism at work harmoniously and diametrically—with John the Baptist’s testimony leading up to our Lord’s Nativity, and the Evangelist’s testimony emanating out of it. A charism is a grace given to one or a few for the good of the many or the whole. Both St. John the Baptist, and (originally) his pupil, St. John the Evangelist (see John 1:37) share in one charism: to see the saving Lamb when others can’t, to point to him, and to make him known. We encounter this beautiful convergence of both St. Johns and their charism in the Prologue read as the Gospel on Christmas Day. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (John 1:6). Is the Evangelist referring to the Baptist or Gospel writer in this verse? Yes.

This shared Johannine charism is especially replicable and providentially intended to be imitated by the faithful until our Lord comes again.[8] This self-negating unknowing of the Baptist is mimetically echoed in word and deed by his disciple, the Evangelist, who punctuates his Prologue apophatically, or negatively: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). The weight of this verse in salvation history is more intelligible if we can understand a rhetorical principle at work throughout John’s Gospel, one that he imports from the Greeks (pace, Tertullian!). It is a principle that the modern social media connoisseur will be only too familiar: that of the meme.

Besides being a disciple of St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist was almost certainly schooled in the Hellenistic philosophical tradition and, indirectly, Socrates. He would have known the great Greek thinkers through his studies, possibly as a member of the Temple elite in training. He likely studied the work of Plato as is well-reflected in his narrative style. He gives two significant Greek words to the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, Logos and Paraclete (the only Evangelist to do so). Like St. Paul, he would have known well the significance of the unnamed God in the Areopagus, and the apophatic role of Socrates, the Greek, who must go in like manner unnamed as a penultimate forerunner to Christ.

While skeptics of our age have been known from time to time to use John’s obvious Hellenistic influence as a bludgeon against the apparent veracity of the Gospel and its personal authorship at the pen of St. John, we can gratefully see with the Church the likes of St. John, St. Paul, St. Luke, and others who import the preordained philosophical treasury of Athens unto the saving work of Christ. Importantly, St. John is almost certainly familiar with—and indeed a well-read student of—Aristotle’s work. We know this because St. John makes persistent use of principles outlined in Aristotle’s rhetoric.


Holy Memes

According to Aristotle, a meme—or enthymeme—is “the most powerful form of rhetoric.”[9] An enthymeme is a syllogism, left intentionally void of one premise or a conclusion, that the reader or hearer is left to deduce. In “figuring it out” for herself, the truth conveyed becomes deeply knowable and infinitely sharable (or “viral,” to use a colloquialism).


Minor premise: A=B

Major premise: B=C

Unstated Conclusion: You are left to figure it out…. (A=C). [10]


St. John employs the use of enthymemes throughout his Gospel. We find more each time we read it. One example is John 20:21: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”


Minor premise: So I send you.

Major Premise: The Father has sent me.

Unstated Conclusion: You are sent by the Father.


Or another, John 6:57: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.”


Minor premise: Whoever eats me will live because of me.

Major premise: But I live because of the Father.

Unstated Conclusion: Therefore he who eats me lives (also) because of the Father.


While there are dozens of enthymeme’s throughout John’s Gospel, the enthymeme that most concerns us here has its first premise in John 1:18, noted above: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom (eis ton kolpon) of the Father, he has made him known.”

Here we have the first premise of a mega-enthymeme, spanning the Gospel and plumbing its depths, that the Beloved Disciple will conclude only in his account of the Last Supper when it is not only the Son in the bosom of the Father, but St. John himself in the bosom of the Son consoling his master as he announces his betrayal. “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast (en tō kolpō) of Jesus” (John 13:21).

The reader can now see John’s Prologue and Last Supper account as being united in a single enthymeme, and its power cannot be overstated:

Minor Premise: Only the Son who is in the bosom of the Father has seen him and so can make him known.

Major Premise: St. John is now in the bosom of the Son

The unstated conclusion is for you, the reader. It serves as an invitation to imitate the hidden adoration of both St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist who, through a rootedness in this adoration, can see our Lord and so make him known. In it, we find the mystery of both Advent that terminates in Christmas and in Christmas that terminates in Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. And in it we find an acceptable response to the chaos, tumult, and labor pains that precede birth (many so evident in the Church today).


The Way Forward

In the bosom of Jesus, and so in the bosom of the Father, John prepares the way in deed for Christ’s saving Passion. John could have broken from adoration to answer Peter’s command, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks” (see John 13:24). He could have entered into a former mimetic cycle, that of the Old Covenant and all of its bloodshed now come to a head in the treachery of Judas, son of destruction. In that upper room, witnessing apostolic betrayal, John could have entered into that chaos and named Judas to Peter. We know from Luke’s Gospel that the apostles were armed. So we know what would have happened to Judas.

John sees another way when even ten other apostles do not. He sees that the Blood of the Lamb must be shed—not yet the blood of the betrayer. So he adores, and in his adoration he is able to follow his Lord to his saving Cross when even Peter and the others cannot. And this deed of adoration illuminates a central aspect of the Johannine charism, one that is evident with the Evangelist standing with his new Mother at the foot of the Cross, but hidden in the Baptist still resting in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth.

If we understand the Passion of Jesus in its broadest sense, we may conclude that it begins when he undertakes to be willingly affected by his own creation. In this sense, the Saving Passion of Jesus begins at the moment of his Incarnation. In the womb of his Blessed Mother, he begins to suffer those he loves. In the womb of his mother, he begins to die for his bride. The Church, then, should see St. John the Baptist in his leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb as a primal, hidden, witness to the saving Passion of Christ—one that culminates in the public witness of St. John the Beloved at the foot of the Cross. Advent points to the Paschal Mystery. Hidden adoration, initially a secret between friends, gives way to glory that will be universally manifest on the last day.


Know How to Say No

To see the saving Lamb of God before he is revealed in glory is to operate in the charism of St. John, but as the season of Advent calls us to remember, this perspicacious sort of vision is only possible through self-denial. For this reason, Advent is an invitation to enter into the beautiful darkness of unknowing. In our preparation to receive our King, we can meditate on and strive to imitate the heroic limits of man’s natural capacity, all of which are negative and personified by Socrates, the wisest man in Athens, and St. John the Baptist, the greatest man born of woman. This twofold human emptiness finds confluence, through grace, in the beloved.

If we succeed in this unknowing of Advent, we can be sure of a bountiful share in the Christmas Joy—and ultimately the Paschal Joy—of our Lord who so thirsts to make a dwelling with his Father in our emptiness.

I must decrease.

Come, Lord Jesus.


[1] Plato, Apology, Benjamin Jowett (trans), The Dialogues of Plato (New York: Bantam, 1986), 8.

[2] St. Thomas Aquinas. Primae redactiones Scripti super Sententiis. (Corpus Thomisticum, 1962), 3 d. 25, 2, 2, 2 ad 3, See also ST II, II, 2, 7 ad 3.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Questiones Disputatae de Veritate. Html edition by Joseph Kenny, O.P. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), http://dhspriory.org/thomas/QDdeVer.htm (accessed November 30, 2010), 14, 11 ad 5.

[4] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Second and Revised Edition, 1920, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province.

[5] Lateran Council IV: DS 806.

[6] Thomas Aquinas. Questiones Disputatiae de Potentia Dei, 7, 5, ad 14.

[7] Cf. Ascent of Mount Carmel, IV.

[8] Cf. John 21:22. “Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

[9] Aristotle, Rhetoric.

[10] To understand internet “memes” as what Aristotle calls enthymemes, consider any common, humorous internet meme. Take “success kid” for example (the reader ignorant of said meme may find it with an internet search). We are given a picture of a cute toddler pumping his fist on the beach with a victorious, determined facial expression. That’s the minor premise. And it’s accompanied by a caption, the major premise—something like, “Got a raise!” The viewer is then left to deduce the unstated conclusion: “It feels great to get a raise.” When we figure it out, it becomes our own—something we can internalize and share, generating a memetic effect that would be impossible if the teacher stated the conclusion outright.

John Johnson

John Johnson is the Executive Director of the Albertus Magnus Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the promotion of Catholic higher education, and the host of the Magnus Podcast. He has a philosophy degree from St. Mary's College of California, Moraga, CA, and a Masters degree in Theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Berkeley, CA, where his studies focused on the beatific epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas. He has spoken at Catholic retreats and events across the country and lives in California with his wife and four children.