“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).
Today we celebrate a great saint, although he never refers to himself that way. He sets out to point to the Lamb of God and keep himself as inconspicuous as possible: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). While John’s ministry is important, he recognizes that his existence is oriented toward Jesus Christ. He has done his duty so long as the crowds move on from a baptism of repentance to Baptism in the name of the Trinity.
Even the liturgy witnesses to John’s role in salvation history. As some of you may already know, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist is celebrated on June 24th, very close to the Summer solstice. This is when the sun reaches its highest altitude, making for the longest day of the year and the shortest night. The days begin to shorten and the nights begin to lengthen as we approach the Winter solstice, just before December 25th each year. On this date, we experience the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year.
At Christ’s birth, the night seems all-consuming, but we know that the light is about to increase. The days begin to lengthen again just as John’s ministry is concluding. Christ the light is increasing, as John, represented by the darkness, is decreasing. John is gradually stepping back, recognizing that the light has come into the world. The universe bears witness to the relationship between John and Jesus.
For John, his decreasing is accomplished by preaching the truth in and out of season, telling the crowds to repent and exposing Herod’s wrongdoing. He only speaks about himself to explain that he is not the Christ.
Though he drove attention from himself, he managed to attract large crowds and win many for Christ. Saint John the Baptist is a shining example of the lesson that “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27).
The life of Saint John is a life radically oriented toward the kingdom of God. How can we imitate this dynamic in our own lives? It begins with the same recognition, that Jesus must increase while we must decrease. This does not have to be a self-deprecating resolution. As after the winter solstice, we decrease by drawing attention to the light and by rooting out the darkness in our lives. This does not mean losing ourselves. Rather, it means finding ourselves in Christ the light, who shows man who he is meant to be.
We can take more concrete steps to “decrease” by imitating John’s defense of the truth. Notice that in John’s ministry, he managed to decrease while remaining an extraordinarily prominent prophet. This seems counter-intuitive, but it tells us that our enthusiasm and effectiveness are not contrary to humility if they are oriented toward Christ. What we speak about, explain, and defend should be centered on Jesus. We ought not to be afraid to proclaim the “hard sayings” of the Gospel as John did, knowing that our gaze ought to be fixed on heaven. If we focus on heaven and not ourselves, we can be assured that we are on the right track.
This is the terminus of Saint John’s ministry, and it is what we celebrate today: birth into eternal life. John recognized that the most worthwhile endeavor he could undertake would be to direct everyone to God, to an eternity in heaven. He stuck with this call even to the end, because he understood that Christ would conquer death. Seeing that his words would anger many and cause him to beheaded, he continued to press on. His reward was similar to many saints: martyrdom, a speedy entry into the kingdom. Today we celebrate his birth into heaven.
Let us celebrate this great prophet’s heavenly birthday with joy, striving to follow his fearless example of courageous humility.
David Dashiell is the Associate Director of Liturgy for a group of parishes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he is not spending time with his wife and infant daughter, he is writing on philosophy and theology for various online publications. You can find some of these in Crisis Magazine and the Imaginative Conservative, and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.