Psalm 139.1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15 Resp. 14
Luke 1.57-66, 80
Today we commemorate the birth of a great prophet, and not just a prophet, but he of whom it was said, “Behold I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you. A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
The feast of Christmas, coincidentally, is placed near the winter solstice, near the darkest day of the year. The feast of John the Baptist, symbolically, is placed opposite Christmas, near the summer solstice, the lightest day of the year. In the northern hemisphere, the sun strengthens every day after Christmas and weakens every day after the feast of John the Baptist. This yearly astronomical event is a sign to us of the difference between the two men. John signals the end of something, something decreasing and fading away. When he says that he must decrease, he is not speaking only for himself but for the entire prophetic tradition of Israel. Jesus is causing something new to happen, something increasing.
John the Baptist marks the end of the age of prophecy. He is the last in a long line of the great prophets of Israel: Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and many others. Yet John was greater than all of these former prophets. He was greater than all before him inasmuch as the message he proclaimed was greater than theirs. They proclaimed justice, but he proclaimed the Just One. They proclaimed mercy, but he proclaimed the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
John the Baptist is great because, from his mother’s womb, he was a perfect instrument of God. God planned for him to prepare the way for Jesus. Before he was born, God had dedicated him as a prophet to the nations. His first prophecy took place while he was still inside his mother. Nevertheless, for all of his greatness, the character of John the Baptist in the Gospels is above all humble. He decreased; Jesus increased. He freely told his disciples to follow Jesus. He was never jealous of Jesus.
Thanks be to God for the great gift he sent in John the Baptist, but let us remember the words of Jesus. “The least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” Every single one of us who are baptized into the Kingdom ought to exceed the humility and obedience of John. Not by our own strength, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.