Two familiar things can be said on this feast day of John the Baptist.
The first is that as Jesus’ birthday falls just after the winter solstice when the days begin to lengthen, so John the Baptist’s falls just after midsummer’s day, when they begin to shorten. Christ is the rising sun. John is the man who said, ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (Jn 3:30).
The second is that, of all the saints, it is only his and the Virgin Mary’s natural birthdays that are kept. The feasts of other saints often fall on the day of their death or martyrdom, the day of their heavenly birthday, not their earthly one. But Mary and John were different. They had a pre-natal holiness. Mary was conceived immaculate. John was conceived by a woman who was infertile and past the age and he was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Lk 1:15) in the womb when he leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice. So his birth, like Mary’s, is part of the history of redemption and grace. It was a moment of joy for Elizabeth and Zechariah and their friends and relations. It was talked about ‘through all the hill country of Judaea’ (Lk 1:65). So in those eager circles of Palestinian Judaism his birth was a sign that God was still alive. And the Liturgy, which is all about re-enactment, prays in the Collect that we in turn may experience ‘the grace of spiritual joys’, and sense that God is alive among us.
It’s perhaps asking too much that we should feel that specifically about John’s birth. But taking him as a whole is different. He is one of these biblical characters who really ‘speak’. He is a type, a figure, a model, a pattern. He’s representative. He’s someone in whom some of the great biblical themes and ideas converge; they take on a name, face and voice; and then they re-echo. John’s a mirror for seeing ourselves. He really is the last and greatest of the prophets, and he’s still a carrier of the word of God.
One striking thing is surely this: just how, from his mother’s womb, he is completely turned towards Christ. His own birth anticipated Christ’s, and so did his death. His whole life’s work, with the silent preparatory years in the desert, was ‘to make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord’. He was the new Elijah sent to prepare for his coming. He’s Christ’s Forerunner. He’s his herald. He’s the last in the line of Israelite prophets, the one where hope for the messiah becomes most explicit. He could point with his finger at the Lamb of God. And the climax of his mission was to baptise Jesus and so reveal him to Israel and beyond as the Son and Servant of God. He called himself, beautifully, the friend of the Bridegroom (Jn 3:29). He was completely Christ-focussed. And this was not just by his own choice – that came second – but by vocation, predestiny, grace. And so he shines. He’s all prophet, nothing but prophecy. He embodies all that Israel was ultimately about: the coming of the Christ. And more than that: he gives off the meaning of what it is to be human. Christ is the shining Sun or Centre of the universe and of human history. And we are all planets and stars to him. And when we realise that we have found where we belong. For all the unfinished business, we have found the essential meaning of our life. And the famous joy can quietly enter in. Christ is the Goal, the End, the Omega, not just of John’s life, but of every life. This is the great truth John brings every generation. Turn to Christ, look at him. ‘Behold’ him! We’ve just had the feast of Corpus Christi. How eloquent that as the priest holds up the Host and Chalice before Communion, it’s John’s words he uses: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world’! When Herod beheaded John, he thought he had silenced that inconvenient voice for ever. But two thousand years later, it is ringing out around the world in every Mass of the Roman rite.
So, here’s light – for ourselves, ourselves as Christians, as the Church. John’s mission was to prepare for the first coming of Christ. The Church’s mission and ours is to prepare for the second coming – for Christ’s any and every coming in fact. This is why hermits and monks and contemplatives, waiting for God in the wilderness, have always cherished John the Forerunner. But we can all be Johannine. ‘I was thinking, “I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing”; and all the while my cause was with the Lord, my reward with my God’ (Is 49:4). To be Johannine is not to lose hope. It’s to hold the Gospel and Eucharist at the centre of our lives. It’s to live, like John’s finger, pointing to someone greater than ourselves. It’s to be happy to decrease, to feel poor, to be imprisoned metaphorically or even really, as long as Christ can increase and enrich and act freely around us. It’s to be a voice that only wants to speak what’s true, good, kind, a passing voice at the service of the eternal Word.
Blessed are we if there is even one drop, one echo, one brush-stroke of compatibility between John and us!