Fr Billy Swan
In ‘Untold Blessings: Three Pathways to Holiness’, Bishop Robert Barron outlines three ways we can progress in our call to holiness – by finding the center, knowing you are a sinner and realizing that your life is not about you (See Centered: The Spirituality of Word on Fire, pp. 83-92).
On the feast of his nativity, I propose St John the Baptist as the ideal patron saint of the untold blessings that flow from a life of holiness. Because of his words and witness, John is ideally placed to direct us on these three pathways – to keep us centered on Christ, reminding us that we are sinners and knowing that our lives are not about us but God’s purposes for us.
First, finding the center. In his teaching on the first of the three paths to holiness, Bishop Barron points to the image of Christ in the center-piece of the rose window of the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. With Christ at the center, this window is an icon of the well-ordered soul and indeed the harmony of the whole cosmos. Christ at the center is the axis around which everything else turns. Everything in heaven and on earth, finds its place in relation to him.
With St John the Baptist, his life was about preparing the way for God and making room in people’s lives for Christ. For John, it is Christ who must occupy the central place. He and his truth must be the axle of the wheel around which everything else turns. For John, his whole ministry of preaching and baptizing pointed towards Jesus. John’s vocation was not to point to himself but to Christ as Savior: ‘Look! Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). Time and time again, John relativizes his own life to that of Christ. When Jesus came to be baptized by him in the Jordan, John said to him: ‘I need to be baptized by you and yet you come to me’ (Matt. 3:14). John is not the bridegroom but ‘the bridegroom’s friend who stands and listens to him and is filled with joy at the bridegroom’s voice’ (John 3:29). John is not the light but came ‘to bear witness to the light…the real light that gives light to everyone’ (John 1:9). And when that light of Jesus finally appeared, John was happy to give way to him: ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (John 3:30). This is why many of the images of the Baptist in frescoes and mosaics in the early church pictured him standing next to Christ at the center with John’s two arms outstretched and pointing to him.
Here is a lively image of how our witness and efforts to evangelize are also meant to point beyond ourselves and lead others to faith in the Lord. How easy it is for our egos and pride to dislodge Christ from the center! But here John comes to our help by helping us reserve the center space for Christ and and to give the unambiguous sign that: ‘It’s all about Him, not us’. When Christ is at
the center then everything we do or say points others to the path of holiness where they can know him, love him and welcome him at the center of their lives too. However, if our egos are at the center then we draw attention to ourselves with our desire for vainglory. This is why Jesus criticized the Pharisees for allowing their own pride to usurp the place of God at the center.
Second, knowing that you are a sinner. John’s baptism of repentance was all about preparing people for the Savior by reminding them of their need for salvation. Before John appeared, the confession of sin was a communal affair but with John, taking personal responsibility for one’s wrongdoing was emphasized like never before. By his preaching, he cut through the people’s illusion that they were holier than they thought they were. In our day he cuts through that same deception - that ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’. He points to the paths that still need to be straightened, the valleys that need to be laid low, and the obstacles that need to be removed for us to become transformed into who God has created us to be (cf. Luke 3:4). When he recognized Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’, whose mission was to ‘take away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29), he reminds us of our need for repentance and that all of our actions stand before God’s judgment. This continues to be Jesus’ mission. He comes to do battle with sin, to put things right and to make us more perfect in love.
When it came to knowing he was a sinner like those he was baptizing, John stated that compared to Christ, ‘I am not worthy to fasten the strap of his sandals’ (Luke 3:16; John 1:27). For us today, John invites us to have a healthy sense of our own unworthiness before God and warns us against the sin of pride or presumption.
Lastly, John takes us back to the truth that ultimately our lives are not about us but God’s purposes for us. When we consider the army of saints throughout the history of the Church, each of them embodied the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people in various forms and ways. Their lives appeared on the stage of history when they were most needed and served a greater purpose beyond themselves. In John’s case, his life and mission were the fulfillment of God’s promise through the prophet: ‘I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way’ (Mark 1:2). For John, preparing the way included a steadfast witness to the truth which he gave at the cost of his life. According to Pope Benedict XVI: ‘Precisely for love of the truth, John did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path’. Inspired by John’s witness, the pope then urges us: ‘With love for Christ, for his words and for the truth, we cannot stoop to compromises. The truth is truth’ (General Audience, 29th August 2012).
As the voice of God’s word of truth, our vocation is to help all the baptized discover their place in God’s saving plan. We who have been baptized by ‘the Holy Spirit and with fire’ are called to share in the prophetic mission of John the Baptist that was described by his father Zechariah as being a prophet of God, to give people knowledge of salvation and the forgiveness of sins (cf. Luke 1:76-77). In our day, our efforts to evangelize invite us like John to ‘turn people to the Lord their God…and the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous’ (Luke 1:16-17).
I suspect that St John the Baptist is not the favorite saint of many Catholics. Perhaps he is too rugged, too harsh and makes us uncomfortable with his uncompromising preaching about God’s coming and judgment. But maybe we should pay him more attention, given that Jesus singled him out for such praise as ‘the greatest of those born of women’ (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28). Today on the feast of his nativity, we honor him as a saint who directs us towards the untold blessings of holiness that flow when Christ is at the center, when we know we are sinners and realize that our lives are not about us