Dear friends. In the apse in the chapel of the Irish College in Rome is a beautiful mosaic with Christ the Good Shepherd at the centre. At either side of the Lord are images of Irish saints together with Our Lady of Knock and Fr Ragheed Ganni, a priest from Iraq who lived for a number of years at the College and who was killed for his faith in June 2007. On Christ’s left side is the figure of St John the Baptist who is looking at Christ with his two hands pointing to him (see image below). This gesture is in keeping with the humble spirit of John who said of Christ in the fourth Gospel – ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (Jn. 3:30). In many other mosaics and paintings of the Baptist, this is also how he is portrayed – pointing away from himself and towards Jesus as if to say – ‘It’s not about me, it’s about him’.
Today we honour the birth of John the Baptist by meditating on this aspect of his life. John’s whole witness as a man of God pointed beyond itself to where life was to be found, namely in Jesus himself. John had every reason to be proud of himself. Even before he was born, the angel Gabriel foretold that John would be ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ and that he ‘would bring back many of the people to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1:15ff). This greatness was acknowledged by Jesus when he paid John the highest possible compliment: ‘Of all the children born to women, there is no one greater than John’ (Jn 7:28). But John’s greatness was of a different type. It wasn’t the type of greatness we usually associate with great people or great things. John’s greatness lay in his humility that always gave way to faith in God and praise of God. St Luke tells us that at one point of John’s ministry, ‘a feeling of expectancy had grown among the people who were beginning to wonder whether John might be the Christ’ (Luke 3:15). Here was a situation that John could have exploited to his own advantage and to the inflation of his own ego. Had he claimed to be the Christ then many would have believed in him. Instead, John used the occasion to teach the people, not only that he was not the Christ but that compared to Christ he was not worthy to undo the strap of his sandals. The one John had come to serve and to bear witness was ‘more powerful than I’ (Luke 3:16). Though John was ‘not the light’ he had come ‘to bear witness to the light…so that everyone might believe through him’ (John 1:6-7).
Like John, Jesus declares us too to be great – to be loved infinitely by his Father, to be his brother or sister through baptism and to have been anointed and appointed by God for a unique role or mission in life. Where we differ from John is that the witness of our lives as Christians does not always point away from ourselves to God but points to ourselves and our own interests. All of us baptised have been given that light of the Lord that can never be extinguished but sometimes it does not shine as brightly as it could because of pride and the ego. Instead of John’s humility, our desire for glory, praise and recognition can get in the way of God and the glory being directed to him. We can look at Christianity, Church and our parishes and ask ourselves ‘What’s in this for me?’ or ‘How will this help me?’ instead of ‘How can I serve here?’ And when this happens, instead of ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ we begin to point to ourselves and say ‘I must increase and because of that, He must decrease’. That’s how the spiritual physics of the Gospel works. Our lives are signposts that point somewhere – either to ourselves in vain glory or to God and his kingdom. A sign post can’t point in two directions at the same time!
One group of people who give witness to Christ like John are many of the sick and elderly. As their strength fails them, Christ becomes their strength. When they come to accept their limited powers of mobility and ability, they realise that they continue to give witness to the Light and be an ever clearer sign of that light. I remember one man I met in hospital who had suffered from a stroke. He could still talk but could barely move. I was always humbled by the way he received Holy Communion with great reverence and love. One day he shared with me a powerful insight: ‘Ever since I was a child, I have said this prayer every day to my guardian angel. O angel of God my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side to light and to guard, to rule and to guide. Amen’. ‘For me now’ he said, ‘this hospital bed is where ‘God’s love commits me here. Here is my pulpit. I witness to him like this. His will be done’.
Here is the spirituality of John the Baptist where the ego gives way in humility to God’s glory and kingdom. Let us not wait until we are sick to do this. Let all we do and all we are be a signpost that points others to faith in Him and may our lives be a light that leads to the true Light of the world – Jesus Christ our Lord.