John the Baptist, Russian Early 17th Century, Templegallery.com
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.” Mark 1:3
For Christians, John the Baptist, by tradition Jesus’ cousin, is a transitional figure. He is considered to be the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first to recognize and acknowledge Jesus for who and what he was. He was the one for whose arrival John had been called by God to announce. Having done that, his vocation was complete and, as he says in today’s gospel, he is not worthy even to untie the thongs on Jesus’ sandals. Jesus has to grow in stature as John decreases. John is the servant of God, this is God’s wish for him, and he obeys. It is my opinion that John the Baptist is a paradigm Christian model for all of us to emulate. Let me explain.
Some years ago, in 1984 to be exact, a movie came out called Amadeus. It was based on the play of the same name, and it claimed that the musical genius (some say of all time), Wolfgang Amadeus (a name which means beloved of God) Mozart was driven to a premature death by the machinations of the Imperial Court Composer Antonio Salieri. The setting is Vienna, where the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II, resided. Salieri was the only person, according to the play, who fully recognized the immense talent of the younger Mozart, and was consumed by a murderous jealousy. The movie begins with an elderly Salieri attempting suicide, possibly driven by remorse over what he had done years before to Mozart. He is saved, but taken to a mental asylum. Here he is met by a priest who coaxes him to confess his sins. That is when the story really begins, in flashback.
Mozart, whose father Leopold had brought him up as a musical child prodigy, was based in Salzburg, which in those days of the Empire was a prince-archbishopric, meaning the archbishop of Salzburg was also the actual ruler of the city and the land around. Mozart wanted to escape the provincial milieu of Salzburg for the imperial splendor of Vienna. This he does, and is quickly noticed by Salieri, and the dark fun begins behind the mask of supposed friendship. Through one means and another, Mozart is slowly reduced to a drunken quivering mess, finally trying – and failing – to complete his final work, the awe-inspiring Requiem. He dies and is buried in a pauper’s grave. Salieri is triumphant.
We return to the mental asylum where Salieri is completing his account of his misdeeds to the priest. whose face is buried in his hands, overwhelmed by the evil he’s just heard. He says nothing. Salieri has a final word, and the movie ends. It’s great drama (though not exactly historically accurate), and the music, as you might imagine, is wonderful. But from another angle it is a failure as it does not reveal another world of what could have been, and which the priest should have pointed out. This Sunday we talk of John the Baptist. He was all the rage in his day, people flocking to him to hear him and be baptized by him in the Jordan. The world was his oyster. He is the Salieri parallel, because he recognizes that Jesus is the greater presence by far, but is prepared to accept it. That’s where the parallel collapses. Salieri never did that, and ended up a miserable, embittered old sinner. John stands aside and declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God, one whose sandals he is unworthy to untie. He dies in God’s grace, acknowledged to be a great prophet.
My point is this. I believe we are all called upon to act as if each of us is John the Baptist. We must recognize the good in others, rejoice in it, accept it and give thanks to God for it, exactly as Salieri did not – and what the priest should have pointed out to him! Our own conduct should be as close to that of the Lord as possible. Hopefully that will be impressive, and people will be drawn not to us, but to God, and we rejoice. As the Benedictus prayer, spoken by John’s father Zechariah at the birth of his son, says,
As for you, little child, you shall be called a prophet of God the Most High. You shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare his ways before him. To make known to his people their salvation through forgiveness of all their sins, the loving-kindness of the heart of our God who visits us like the dawn from on high. Luke 1:76-78.
That could be spoken to each of us. Just as Jesus said he came among us to serve us, even though he was the equal of God, so should we serve those around us, those who are less gifted than us, and those who are more gifted. All are God’s children and deserve our love and service. That is the path to true happiness and salvation.