Nativity of St. John the Baptist – June 24, 2012 – St. John’s, Goshen
Today we interrupt the regular sequence of the Sundays of Ordinary Time in order to celebrate the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist. It is unusual for us to do so. Sundays usually out-rank any saint’s feast, and that we do this for John the Baptist is an indication of how high the Church ranks him. For a long time, his was the only birth, apart from that of Christ himself, that was celebrated with a feast day–the feast for the birth of the Blessed Virgin came much later. In this special reverence for the Baptist, of course, we are only following the example of Jesus himself who said of John, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” (Mt 11:11).
It is as the precursor of Christ, of course, that the Church honors John the Baptist, in this once again following all the traditions enshrined in the New Testament. His father expressed this role as he broke out into song at his son’s birth: “And you, child, shall be called prophet of the Most High, for you shall go before the Lord to prepare straight paths for him, giving his people a knowledge of salvation, in freedom from their sin” (Lk 1:76-77). It is a role that he took on as “a voice crying in the wilderness,” but great as his role was, John knew that one greater than he was coming, one so great that John did not consider himself worthy to untie his sandals. That is why, in Christian art, he is usually portrayed pointing beyond himself, away from himself, toward Christ, and saying, “Look, there is the Lamb of God.”
In St. John’s Gospel we find an interesting metaphor for that great but secondary role. There the Baptist calls himself “the friend of the Bridegroom.” “The bride belongs to the groom,” John says, but “the friend of the bridegroom stands there listening for him and is overjoyed to hear his voice. That is my joy, and it is complete” (Jn 3:29). In the ancient world, the friend of the groom was a close relative or an intimate friend who had a major role in finding a bride, in mediating the agreement between families, in settling the dowry, in communicating between the man and the woman during the time of their engagement, in protecting her and making sure that she remained faithful to her future husband, and in the eventual wedding festivities. (St. Paul used the same metaphor to describe his ministry in 2 Cor 11:2.) When John the Baptist speaks of himself as the “friend of the Bridegroom,” he knows that his role is to bring the groom and the bride together, and once he hears the groom’s cry of joy, he knows that his part is over. Now “he (the bridegroom) must increase,” he says, “and I must decrease.”
I think the metaphor is a good way to think of the ordained ministry in the Church. The role of a deacon, a priest, a bishop, or even of a pope is to prepare, to facilitate the union (wedding) between individual souls and Christ, between the Church and Christ. That relationship is intimate and immediate, and none of these ministers should come between the community and its individual members and Christ. We are not substitutes for Christ, as if the primary relationship is between a believer and a minister, when, of course, always and forever, it is between believers and God or Christ. It is Christ who is present and active in the sacraments. It’s not the priest who washes sinners clean in baptism, but Christ; it’s not the priest’s body that becomes present on the altar, but Christ’s; the encounter in the sacrament of reconciliation is not between a sinner and a priest, but between a sinner and God. Both priests and people should be very glad that the validity and fruitfulness of a sacrament does not depend on the holiness of the priest, but on the love and power of Christ at work in the various sacraments. As a Church, we have over the last two decades or so had enough bitter experience of the truth that ordained ministers are capable of horrendous evil; but even apart from such scandals, we ought always to remember that when we come to the sacraments, it is Christ we encounter.
St. Augustine gave two other explanations of the Baptist’s words: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” He noted that Christ’s birthday is celebrated at the winter solstice, when the days begin to grow longer, while John’s birth is celebrated at the summer solstice, when the days begin to grow shorter. And the saying is also verified in their deaths: John grew smaller when his head was cut off, where as Christ grew larger as he was lifted on the cross. Two pleasant interpretations, not to be taken too seriously, but designed to enable his people to enter more fully into the celebration of the birthday of one whose joy it was to point beyond himself to our Lord Jesus Christ.