Today is the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist. A ‘Solemnity’ is a feast day, and not somber as one would be tempted to think. I must confess that I’d never really spent a lot of time thinking about John the Baptist before today. He was kinda like a footnote to the life of Jesus, a minor figure who introduces Jesus and then walks off stage. So it was sort of surprising to me to discover that John the Baptist is the only saint (other than Mary and Joseph) to have two feasts dedicated to himself.
Yet, as as the readings for the Liturgy of the Hours reminded me, Jesus called John the greatest man ever to be born. (cf. Matthew 11:11) Augustine noted in a sermon used in today’s readings that ‘John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New.’ Augustine sees in the divinely ordered muteness of Zachariah, John’s father, a testimony to the fact that before Jesus, the prophets were mute in a way and what they foretold was not fully understood, but now it is released and opened up by the arrival of Christ. It is John’s job to proclaim that.
Yet Jesus also reminded us that even though John was the greatest man ever born, the least figure of the kingdom of heaven will be greater than John. (cf. Matthew 11:11) John is a figure soon eclipsed by Jesus; ‘He must grow greater, I [John] must grow smaller.’ (cf. John 3:30) The electronic version of the Liturgy of the Hours that I get comes with an ‘about today’ section that talks about the figures being commemorated today. It had this to say about John the Baptist:
‘A prophet from before his birth, leaping in the womb to announce the coming of the incarnate God, his task was to proclaim the fulfillment of all prophecies – and thus his own obsolescence. And he did it; with unequaled courage he spread the news that he, the greatest of all men, was the least in the kingdom of heaven… [Others] would have preferred him to fight, to build his sect, to defeat this upstart whom he himself had baptized, to seize his place in history.’ (Universalis)
May we imitate him, and become less, that Jesus Christ may grow greater in our world.