My middle name is Juan and I was named after my grandfather in the Philippines whom I never met. Over the years, I have adopted a number of holy men named “John” as my patron saint: John the Evangelist. John of the Cross. John Vianney. John of Capistrano. Juan Diego. Lately, on the cusp my senior years, I have turned to Saint John the Baptist.
He is a biblical saint with no body of writing and no religious community that has preserved his wisdom and traditions. Our only source on the Baptizer are the four gospels which each have unique and contradictory accounts. All four evangelists speak, in various degrees, of Jesus’ baptism by John. They each speak of John’s ministry as the forerunner or herald of the Christ, citing the Isaiah passage of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3) Luke tells the story of John’s miraculous birth by elderly parents, of family kinship with Jesus, and how John pointed the way to Jesus even from his mother’s womb. Mark and Matthew give detailed accounts of John’s death by beheading at the hands of Herod.
In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is described as the man “sent by God to bear witness to the light,” i.e., the light of Jesus Christ. Indeed, John the Evangelist attributes three quotes to John the Baptist that can be seen as his mission statements. These quotes speak so deeply to me at this time in my life. One grows accustomed to disappointment and unfulfilled expectations as the years unfold. It is so easy to succumb to bitterness and depression, to withdraw into a tiny shell, away from hurt and betrayal. John the Baptist shows me another way: Live for Christ!
“Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
Life is full of regrets, of second thoughts for decisions made in haste or under duress, of words said in anger that can’t be taken back. Unfortunately, these regrets can last a lifetime and affect relationships and mental health. John the Baptist points us to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Paschal sacrifice, whose death upon the Cross brought about the forgiveness of our sins. If God forgives us, why can’t we forgive ourselves?
“I am not the Messiah but I have been sent ahead of him…” (John 3:28)
This is something my pastor is fond of reminding us in his homilies: I AM NOT GOD. I do not have the power or the wherewithal to fix everything, to solve all problems, and to make everything perfect. That’s God’s job, in God’s time. Instead of thinking of myself as the Messiah, I can lead others to him by word and example. That’s a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders!
“He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
This does not mean putting myself down. I see this quote as the great secret of Christianity. Let Christ be the central influence in my life, the One who motivates my choices and lifestyle. Let Christ shine through me in what I say and do, even when little things irritate and annoy me, or when the big issues in today’s world anger me. Christ must increase.
By extension, this means the Christ who lives in others. Can I see Christ in the downtown homeless person who is asking for a handout? Can I see Jesus in the face of the co-worker who constantly complains, or in the relative or friend who has seemingly become invisible with each passing year?
According to the gospels, John the Baptist had a good thing going. His fiery preaching and his baptism of repentance attracted commoners and Pharisees, who flocked to him in sizeable numbers at the Jordan River. We know he had disciples because he sent them to Jesus. In fact, despite his success as an itinerant preacher, he willingly passed on the mantle to his cousin, whose sandal straps he “was not worthy to unfasten.” And then he withdrew from the scene as Jesus’ ministry soared.
John points the way to Christ even to this day. Consider that his birthday, June 24, falls shortly after the summer solstice, when the days begin to gradually get shorter. Through the ingenuous poetry of the liturgical calendar, on his nativity John the Baptist is pointing toward the nativity of Jesus Christ six months later. December 25 is shortly after the winter solstice, when the days begin to get longer. Thus, through the growing darkness that begins on his birthday, John the Baptist points once again to Jesus Christ, the light of the world who conquers the darkness of sin.
“He must increase but I must decrease.” Amen.
"John the Baptist" is a very early song by my friend Bob Hurd, recorded in 1974 for his first album, O Let Him In. Not a liturgical song, this is a Christian folk song on the cult that surely surrounded John the Baptist back in the day.