St. John the Baptist is the man who recognizes in Jesus of Nazareth the Lamb of God, God Incarnate, the Man of sorrows. He is the one who in God’s own name declares to those who surround him who He is, and who prepares His way. The greatness of St John the Baptist lies, perhaps more than in anything, in the fact that he so loved, so believed, so completely wanted to serve God, who had come into His world to save it, that his whole service can be put in the words he uses himself: “ I must diminish, I must decrease, that He may increase.” And I would like to take up a few of the expressions which the Scriptures apply to St John the Baptist, or a few of the words he spoke.
The beginning of the Gospel according to St Mark defines him in the words of the Prophet Isaiah: a voice that shouts in the desert. He was so perfectly one with the message he had to deliver, he was so identified with the will and the mind of God whom he had to convey to people, that he was perceived by the seer not even as a prophet proclaiming God’s will, but as God’s own voice resounding through a man. The man had become perfectly flexible, perfectly obedient, perfectly transparent to the message he had to convey, he was the message; the message had become him. The Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament say somewhere that a prophet is one with whom God shares His designs. To a certain extent, as for every prophet, it was true for him, but what he had seen of the divine mind and the divine will he proclaimed with such perfection that nothing was left but the message. Of him perhaps more than of anyone one might say that the words of Christ, “Let your light so shine before all men that seeing your good deeds they should give glory to your Father who is in heaven”, were fulfilled.
John the Baptist seems to have been completely transparent to the message. And yet how vivid a picture we get of him from the Gospels! But this picture only enhances his message – not in the sense that it makes it more dramatic, not in the sense that what men see attracts their attention to the message, but they can see a man who has so completely given himself up to the vision and to the listening, so completely renounced himself, that there is practically nothing left of him. A very young man, according to the prophecy, he leaves the company of other men, he retires into the desert, and there he allows God to mould him and to destroy in him everything which is not His, – nothing is left but a frame and the chords which the hand of God will touch and which will resound in powerful, yet harmonious melody. His presence itself witnesses to the fact that he has no other concern on earth but God, that of all his life he has made an offering, that nothing is left of him but what can be used by God and what can worship God, that is, give God the place that is His, the only place.
And yet his message is not hard, rough, although it is as ruthless as love. He was so very concrete. Reread what he says to the soldiers, to the priests, to men of all conditions. He takes them where they are and starts them at the point at which they can start. This is what we are called to do also and what he says also to us: before you try to reach great things, start where you are, reach integrity in the condition which is yours, and when you have done it, then reach out for greater things.
St John the Baptist is the one to whom it was given to recognize and to proclaim Christ. When the Lord came to the banks of Jordan, he saw Him coming, and declared that this was the Lamb of God that was taking upon Himself the sins of the world. Now, this was the beginning of the decrease of John. Crowds continued to come, he continued to preach this Gospel, this good news of repentance, that people were not prisoners of the past or the present but there was all hope ahead; but now he was no longer in need to allow people to stay around him: he sent them on. Everyone who had understood and might have been a companion to him left him to follow the Son of God who now had begun His ministry on earth as the Son of Man.
We may ask ourselves what St John the Baptist felt when all those who understood went away from him, when he was left truly with the wilderness of men’s hearts when they lack understanding, when they do not respond, crying and crying and shouting in this wilderness of men. We can answer this question with his own words: speaking of himself, he calls himself “the friend of the Bridegroom”. In ancient civilisations the friend of the bridegroom was the man who after the rituals of the wedding, brought the bridegroom and the bride to their chamber. He closed the door behind them and he lay across the threshold to watch over their peace so that those who had chosen one another might stay with one another alone, undisturbed in the mystery of that communion of love which was now given them. The joy of the friend of the bridegroom, the joy of him to whom the bridegroom is not his bridegroom, the joy of him to whom the bride is not his bride, but who loves both in such perfect, self-effacing love that his joy is fulfilled in the fact that they are face to face with one another while he is an outsider to the sacred and mysterious meeting. In this again is the perfection of surrender. He truly accepts to diminish that others may increase. He truly accepts what a modern writer has called “self-naughting”, i.e. coming to naught by an act of surrender, freely, as an act of perfect love, – not to be, that something else might be.
The Lord calls him the greatest of those born of women. He is one who knew that the Kingdom was at hand, who knew that the Lord was in the midst of his people and who also knew that his place was elsewhere. He was not given to follow his Lord whom he had recognized and declared to others. He remained outside all that happened around Jesus, he remained outside all this Kingdom of God come with power. He was to remain outside it to make it possible for others to come to it. And the kingdom in which he was, was a kingdom of expectation, a kingdom of faith, a kingdom of hope, a kingdom of love, of devotion, of perfect sacrifice. And yet it was a kingdom unfulfilled: it was still within the Old Testament, on the threshold of the New, that he stood, not walking into the newness which was at hand, that others might know of it and be prepared for it. He gives us the full measure of the stature of the man of the Old Testament, the man of the promise, the man of desire and of hope, the man that waits; but he knew how to wait even when what was expected was already there; he knew how to renounce what his message was for; he knew how to remain an outsider that others might find their way into the Kingdom.
And then came the time of his death. He was taken by Herod, he was cast into prison, and he knew that his time was running short. He was now faced with a vision of all his life which he could rehearse and reappraise and rethink, and he was facing his death. And then he met, I think, the ultimate and the great trial of his life. The Gospel tells us that he sent to the Lord two of his disciples with the question: “Art thou He who was to come, or should we expect another one?” This question sounds simple and yet if you try to think yourself into the situation of St John the Baptist, you may perceive how tragic this question was: “Art thou?” He was the man who at a sign given by God recognized the Saviour and proclaimed Him to the people, who had prepared His way, who had chosen to decrease that He might increase and to lose everything that Christ might gain everything. And now suddenly he asks a question which really means: Have I made a mistake? If Thou truly art He whom we expected, then there is nothing to regret in my life, my youth, lost to the joys of youth, parched and scorched in the desert in tremendous loneliness and spiritual endeavour, the alienation in which I have found myself, alone always in the desert of human presences, always meeting men with the judgement of God, calling them to hope, but at a price: a stranger to them, never one of them. Then also death is worthwhile because it will be the last step in this progress in which he decreased until he no longer was and Christ alone was. But if Jesus is not the man whom the prophets announced and the people expected and he declared to be the Son of God, the Lamb, then all his life was wasted and he was betrayed not only by religion, but by God Himself, who had promised a sign, given a sign, and this sign proved untrue. The last anguish of the greatest man of the Old Testament. And Christ does not answer his question: to the prophet He gives back the words of another prophet: “Tell John what you see, the lame walk, the blind see, the poor proclaim the god news.” And He adds: “Blessed is he who does not fall a prey to temptation because of me.”
This is the only message which St John the Baptist receives: You have been a man of faith because you belong to the realm of faith, the Old Testament. You must fulfil all the greatness of faith, in your life and in your death. Believe; that is, stand firm in that certainty of the invisible which has been the rock on which you have stood throughout your life. And John dies. He has decreased to the last; he has been a man of faith to the last; he has died in a sense on the threshold of the Kingdom without having walked into it, because he stood there that others might reach it.
These are the features which, I believe, are at the core of the various services of the Church in which we magnify, praise and we learn from St John the Baptist. The Church keeps the day of his conception; it also remembers Zechariahs and Elisabeth, whose personal perfect surrender and devotion to God gave us St John in his very birth and in the way he was prepared by them to make the final choices of his life, the nativity, the birth of St. John the Baptist as we can read of it also in the Gospel according to St Luke. We keep the day of his death and we remember him always in connection with the feast of the Baptism of Christ. The day after the Baptism of Christ we keep a special feast to remember him who was instrumental in the baptism but who was no more just an instrument of the baptism than the Mother of God was just an instrument of the Incarnation. He is the greatest man born of woman; he is now in the glory of the Kingdom. Throughout his life, for the sake of other men, he accepted to remain an outsider. This is perhaps the most glorious and the most tragic, the greatest vision of man which we can have, not only in the Old but even in the New Testament.