St. John the Baptist, El Greco, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA.
[All the people said] “What, then, will this child be?”
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. Luke 1:66.
John the Baptist is an intriguing figure, unlike any other in our New Testament. He is considered to be the last prophet of the Old Testament by Christians, a bridge figure heralding the arrival of the long-expected Messiah. He must have caused a great commotion in his lifetime, for many considered him to be the messiah; indeed, there is still a small community in Iraq called the Mandaeans who venerate him still. You will recall in the gospel of St. John (a different John), that the Baptist was asked who he was, and his strange answer was that he was not the Messiah! (Jn. 1:29 and also found in today’s second reading from the Acts of the Apostles). According to Christians then, his vocation was to prepare the way of the Lord, and this from the lips of Zechariah, his father (Lk. 1:76). Further, Elizabeth his mother, was thought to be barren, yet gave birth, echoing the story in Genesis of the birth of Isaac whose mother Sarah was also considered to be barren. In the earlier case, Abraham, Isaac’s father, Sarah and Isaac all heralded the arrival of God into human history, with God demonstrating divine power in this most human of ways. Now the birth of the Baptist heralded the arrival of God’s Son, present in our midst, both human and divine; each initiates a new world, the first where God the Father appears, then God’s Son. Both the gospel of Mark and the gospel of Luke begin with John as a dominating figure, with Mark, the oldest of our gospels, introducing John as grown up and baptizing the people in the River Jordan, then baptizing Jesus who then discovers his identity as God’s Son, and receives his vocation, to be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.
In John 3:30, the Baptist says of Jesus that “He must become greater, I must become less.” John’s vocation is to make the Messiah known to people, to trust him, to follow him and live by his teachings. That is part and parcel of John’s vocation. Hence his work, once done, he must fade into the background as others discover the greater truth of Jesus. It was John who, in seeing Jesus, declared him to be the (sacrificial) Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29). So everything John said and was, was to fulfill his vocation, for Jesus to take his place as the center of people’s lives; with that, John’s work was done – until he found others who knew not the Messiah.
All this is interesting as a history lesson of the beginning of Christianity, but what has this to do with us 2000 years later? Well it seems to me to be a very valuable and contemporary lesson on what it is to be Christian. In each of our lives and work, it is our task, it seems to me, to be John the Baptist to those around us! In all we say and do as we interact with those around us should reflect the truth of Jesus’ teachings and actions. In that way we love our neighbor. Consider one example of the opposite. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus is the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the efforts of the Imperial Court Composer in Vienna, Antonio Salieri, to destroy him. Salieri is the only one to recognize the ultimate genius of Mozart’s work, far beyond his own talents, and hates him for it, and seeks his destruction. It was in his power to promote Mozart, seek the recognition of this person to whom God had given great gifts. Instead, he sought the opposite. Although in reality the facts are different, it serves the purpose here. This is Salieri being the anti-John the Baptist, seeking to protect his own position at the expense of someone who could outshine him. That is the opposite of loving one’s neighbor, and, incidentally, breaking the 10th Commandment, forbidding coveting your neighbor’s goods, in this case, Mozart’s spectacular talents. Now the opposite. Poet Maya Angelou goes out of her way to thank Mrs. Flowers, her school teacher, who was convinced of her talents, and encouraged her to read, read, read and expand her universe. Oprah Winfrey says the same of her 4th grade teacher Mrs. Duncan, and also thanks Maya Angelou who was another who helped her on her way. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta always thanked Fr. Martin van der Peet for inspiring and encouraging her. For many of us, our parents were the greatest and first teachers, taking delight in our successes and picking us up when we fell. The encouragement of others in our pathway through life is important and sometimes crucial. And each of us in turn is called to be that teacher, mentor, supporter of those around us, perhaps to be that one who made the positive difference in someone’s life. And our Christian love of others is what gives us the strength to act in such a way. Hopefully, those others will recognize the source of our care and concern, and in their turn be attracted to that source of power and love. In that way, each of us becomes John the Baptist, rejoicing in the success of others and pointing to the Lord as our guiding principle and strength.
PS: In keeping with the idea that John would grow less as Jesus grows more, it was pointed out many years ago that John’s birthday is celebrated about six months before Christmas, at the time of the summer solstice (in the northern hemisphere). Jesus’ birth occurs at about the winter solstice. So the days begin to grow shorter after John’s birthday, and longer after Jesus’. At the time it was pointed out, of course, there was no knowledge of lands below the equator where the solstices are the opposite…..