I often think about how strange it must have been to be St. John the Baptist. On the one hand, he had a very clear calling and goal toward which his life was ordered; he knew from an early age that he was called to radical sacrifice, calling people to repentance, and “making straight the way of the Lord”. On the other, the God to whom he was calling the people back, and the Lord whose path he was making straight, was his younger cousin, someone he’d presumably seen over the years at family gatherings and celebrations. In all, quite a bizarre life to live, but I find this dichotomy helpful in meditating on Jesus’ humanity and the “Hidden Years” before his ministry. Jesus was, at one point, a teenaged boy, with teenage friends and cousins, most likely playing some first-century equivalent of pickup basketball and going to birthday parties, and there’s a real chance St. John was there for some of that.
This is not, however, the contradiction on which I would like to focus today. Rather, I want to look at the apparent difference in the way St. John talks about himself, and how Jesus talks about him, and what this means for us as people who would like to imitate St. John’s holiness and service of God.
For the first part, how John talks about himself, we see a very clear and consistent pattern throughout the gospel of John. He says first and foremost that he is a herald, “crying out in the wilderness ‘make straight the way of the Lord’”, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. He has a very clear, but limited, purpose. His whole point for existence is the one who will come after him. Later, in John chapter 3, when he is asked about this new, potentially rival Rabbi he baptized, he says, in extreme humility, that “No one can receive anything except what is given him from Heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John not only acknowledges that all his gifts are from God, but also that those gifts were for him to do a specific job, to stand as “Best Man” for the coming bridegroom, and to fade out of the picture when the bridegroom comes. He recognizes, and you can almost hear the relief and exhaustion in his words, that his job is almost done. One wonders if God granted him the knowledge that he was soon to enter a Martyr’s retirement. Either way, we see a man who knew his purpose, and sought no extra glory for doing his job.
And what a job it was! The man preached repentance and radical conversion to a nation, even up to the King, a local representative of Caesar. Furthermore, he was given the incredible (and, frankly, terrifying) job of baptizing God to prepare him for his ministry. His actions and Jesus’ words on John the Baptist strike us as potentially contrasting with the way John spoke about himself. Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel that “among those born of women none is greater than John”, and goes on to chastise the people for ignoring his witness. These are incredible words, but from a source we can trust.
How, then, do we make sense of this seeming contradiction? The easy way would be to say that John was just being humble or self-deprecating, and looking at the way we most often try to practice humility that would make sense. We could, in a strange way, read these two in conversation with each other and see John “fishing for compliments”. That would, of course, be ridiculous. Rather, I think we need to read these two in conversation with each other, but being honest, because this brings John and Jesus’ description of him into alignment with the rest of Jesus’ teaching. In the verse I mentioned above, Jesus goes on to say that though “none is greater than John”, “he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he”.
We’re faced now with another contradiction, but this one brings us into clarity. John’s greatness is because of his “littleness” and his efforts to decrease. John, through his radical poverty and reliance on God, preaching, and witness, is already living the life of heaven on earth. This is why he was regarded as the prototype for the Desert Fathers, and later monastics in the West. If we want to live like we’re in heaven, we have to renounce all self-interest and live single-mindedly for the glory of God and to make straight the way of the Lord. We see this in the witness of thousands of Saints, The Church’s teaching on Mary (who only ever leads us to her Son), and through the life of St. John the Baptist.
Practically, this is incredibly difficult to do, and God is generous and merciful to us. We can begin with two simple questions. “What am I attached to?” and “Who am I here for?”. As we honestly ask those questions, we can begin to work on our desires and attachments, and then, with God’s help, hope to achieve the greatness of St. John the Baptist, or even one of the “little ones in the Kingdom of God”.
Andy Brandt is a Senior at Kansas State. You can find him writing about Catholicism, Politics, and Justice at https://medium.com/@