Today, the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist nudges aside the liturgy for the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time. St. John is regarded as an important character in the unfolding drama that we call the Divine Plan of Salvation. Thus, the feast of his birth is given the rank of a Solemnity.
The Gospel reading that we hear on this feast is naturally the story of his birth. St. Luke composed the first two chapters of his Gospel and created two parallel stories. In the story of St. John, the sacred author announces his birth while his father is in the Temple. His birth takes place in the home of his parents who are surrounded by their kinfolk. His circumcision takes place on the eighth day after his birth at which time he is given the name John. We are then told that John grew strong in spirit and eventually moved out into the desert.
Parallel to this story is that of the birth of Jesus. The announcement of his birth is made to his mother in a private setting. His birth takes place in a stable where Joseph and Mary take shelter away from their home in Nazareth. He is circumcised eight days later and given the name Jesus. We are then told that he and his parents returned to Nazareth where he grew strong in spirit. Around his twelfth birthday, we find him again in the Temple, teaching the elders.
Notice that the story of John began in the Temple and ended in the desert while the story of Jesus began in a private place and ended in the Temple? In fact, if you compare every detail of the story, you will find that the stories of John and Jesus, though parallel, move in opposite directions. This is St. Luke’s way of illustrating an important assertion that the Baptist makes in the Gospel of St. John: “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
If one were to look for a single line to illustrate what it is that we celebrate today, one would be hard pressed to find a more apt description or a more succinct statement in John’s declaration. For John, indeed, for all the followers of Jesus, both those who followed him while he walked the earth and those who have placed their faith in him after he returned to the Father, we must decrease and He must increase.
Our spirituality asks us to die to self. We seek to be last so that we can be first. We are directed to take a lower seat at the table. St. Paul admonishes us to put on Christ. These are all different ways of saying that we must decrease while Christ must increase. John the Baptist and many of the saints, including our Holy Father, St. Francis, espoused humility and poverty. Our vocation is to make Jesus better known while we slip into the background. Our Blessed Mother is another one who constantly points us toward her Son.
Another scene from the Gospels that illustrates this point is in the very first chapter of St. John’s Gospel. John is walking with two of his disciples. “As he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.” He willingly steps aside and points his disciples toward Jesus.
This kind of humility is one of the commodities that is sorely missing in today’s world. There is so much self-promotion in our world today that we all tend to forget that we are simply the means through which God acts. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are reminded of this; for the Eucharist is Jesus’ act of selfless love. Every time that he comes down to our altar and takes the appearance of bread and wine, he teaches us the lesson of humility that is so well exemplified in John the Baptist.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator