It is always a good day when John the Baptist shows up in the liturgical calendar! In fact, as you may know, he has more feasts than anybody else apart from the Lord and His Mother. Most saints must be content with one day, but John has at least seven that I know of in the Byzantine calendar. Today’s commemorates his death, which we keep not with mourning but with joy.
His importance has nothing to do with being a great or self-made man of power and worldly success.
One of the most absurdly misleading and self-justifying myths that Americans tell themselves about the foundation of their country is that of the self-made man, the ground-breaking pioneer who “opened up” the West, who pushed the frontiers of the American experiment and its “manifest destiny” until it ran across this continent and beyond. We still like to retail this nonsense when extolling inventors or business owners who are presented to us as though they alone had the idea, did all the work alone, and now deserve all of the glory.
These stories deliberately overlook the innumerable ways in which others played significant, and sometimes even decisive, roles in the rise to fame of these so-called “great men.”
Jesus, despite being the Word Incarnate, is not a “self-made” man, and his greatness is such that never goes anywhere by himself for the first time. He is not interested in being the first in the door to grab the best seat, or first into a new territory to conquer and colonize it and then take everything from it he can. He never goes anywhere alone but is always—to use a favorite word of Pope Francis—accompanied by others, indeed preceded by them.
Thus, he is preceded in conception by his young cousin, who was conceived some time before (on September 23, with birth on June 24th; whereas, of course, Jesus is not born until December 25 liturgically). He does not go to the Jordan to baptize himself, but he is met there by his cousin, who does the baptizing. He does not enter into a brutal and unjust death before his cousin already suffers such a wicked execution before him. And he does not enter Hades first, but has his cousin go there ahead of him, as one of the Vespers stichera for this feast’s vigil reminds us:
For he preceded the Life of all into Hades
to announce to those in darkness and the shadow of death
the coming of Christ our God, the Orient from on high,
whose mercy is beyond measure.
Jesus thus never goes anywhere on earth without having been preceded by the one whom we fete today, John the Baptist and Forerunner. To be a forerunner—the warm-up act, so the speak, before the main show—itself requires a profound humility. You will never have as many groupies, nor so large and enthusiastic an audience, as the star attraction, the main event; you will never command the highest fees in your industry; you will never be remembered with cover stories in Rolling Stone at your death.
Yet Jesus, remarking on John the Forerunner—John the Warm-Up act—emphatically stated: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…” (Mt 11:11). How could this be?
By any worldly standard, ancient or modern, John was not great, not a success, not a role-model for your children to endlessly watch on YouTube or TikTok. Instead, John was a freak, a weirdo, a loser. He wandered about eating bugs and whatever he could lay his hands on; he scorned the latest fashions in his appearance; and he held to all the wrong views about sex, marriage, fidelity, and political power.
Perhaps worst of all, in the eyes of today’s world and its real rulers—the busybodies in HR departments everywhere—was his “tone.” As this priest in England recently experienced, the refusal of euphemism to cloak the murderous actions of the state is still as offensive in our world as it was in the days of John’s confrontation with Herod, though perhaps in a slightly more genteel way today.
John’s greatness lies precisely in his humility and lack of self-interest. It is this self-sacrificing humility that lies behind his cousin’s glowing and mysterious praise. It is this humility and lack of concern for himself that enables him to eschew euphemism and to refuse soft speech and treacly talk about deadly serious matters.
As a humble man, he had no need of complicating matters to appear smart and sophisticated. The greatness of John, to my mind, has always been that he cuts through all our needlessly complicated theologizing, all our self-justifying theories of spirituality, to remind us with unsparing bluntness and searing simplicity that our job as Christians is constantly to be decreasing so that Christ may increase in us. Our job as Christians is always and only to say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
In doing so, we will discover that our own decreasing leads not to our diminishment; it is not a disdainful disappearing act in which we indulge our disordered tendencies to self-loathing to the point of oblivion. Our own decreasing-in-Christ is precisely the beginning of our own deification and thus glorification. We decrease so that God might increase in us, making us partakers of the divine nature. We decrease in our blindness, sinfulness, selfishness so that we can increase in our ability to see, to serve, and to sacrifice for others just as the Forerunner did, each of us in our own small, hidden, perhaps even “banal” ways.
And so, as we go through each moment of each day in the coming week, let us be asking ourselves constantly: “How can I decrease so that the light and glory of the resurrected Christ might increase in me?”
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