Ah, I Cannot Speak
At Matins today, the stammering words of the prophet Jeremias are placed in the mouth of the Saint John the Baptist: “Ah, ah, ah, Lord God; behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child” (Jeremias 1:6). At Holy Mass, the words of the prophet Isaias are used in the same way. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that John is the greatest of the prophets, greater than Isaias and Jeremias put together, and that he is more than a prophet.
Called From the Womb
John’s mysterious greatness in the plan of salvation is no mere human choice; it is something divine in origin. Saint John himself said, “A man cannot receive any thing, unless it be given him from heaven” (John 3:27). “The Lord,” he says, “hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother he hath been mindful of my name” (Is 49:1). This certainty makes the Baptist very humble. He does not want to be mistaken for more than he really is. “You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him’” (John 3:28).
And Thou, Child
From his tender childhood John knows that he is sent before One who is greater than himself. John’s father, the priest Zacharias, must have repeated to him many times over what he sang under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit on the eighth day after his birth: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76-77). In the monastic tradition, the same text is chanted at the clothing of a novice. John the Baptist remains, for all time, the model of the monk: child, prophet, herald, and friend of the Bridegroom.
I Knew Thee in the Desert
Saint Luke tells us that John grew and became strong in spirit and lived hidden in the wilderness, anticipating the moment set by God for his appearance to Israel. We can only wonder what transpired between the young prophet and the God of Israel during those years of hidden life in the desert. John, like Jesus, is prepared for his mission by years of silence, far from the multitudes and the tumult of the cities. We are reminded of the words of Osee, “Thou shalt know no God but me, and there is no Saviour beside me. I knew thee in the desert, in the land of the wilderness” (Osee 13:4-5). The earliest hermits and monks of the Church looked to Saint John the desert-dweller as their model and advocate. John is the friend of all those who seek the Face of God in silence; he is the friend of those who live a humble life, “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
The Great Responsory at First Vespers plays on the word eremus; it means both desert and hermitage or monastery. It suggests that the role of Saint John the Baptist remains actual, especially in the context of the eremitical or cenobitical monastic life. His is “the voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Mark 1:3).
Silence and Adoration
When, after years of preparation in the desert, John speaks, he does so out of a profound interior silence, and it is that causes his words to flash like fire bringing sinners to repentance. In Orientale Lumen, Pope Saint John Paul II insisted on the necessity of silence for all Christians:
We must confess that we all have need of this silence, filled with the presence of Him who is adored; in theology, so as to exploit fully its own sapiential and spiritual soul; in prayer, so that we may never forget that seeing God means coming down the mountain with a face so radiant that we are obliged to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:33), and that our gatherings may make room for God’s presence and avoid self-celebration; in preaching, so as not to delude ourselves that it is enough to heap word upon word to attract people to the experience of God; in commitment, so that we will refuse to be locked in a struggle without love and forgiveness. This is what man needs today; he is often unable to be silent for fear of meeting himself, of feeling the emptiness that asks itself about meaning; man who deafens himself with noise. All, believers and non-believers alike, need to learn a silence that allows the Other to speak when and how he wishes, and allows us to understand his words. (OL 16)
The Desert: A School of Humility
Silence prepared and sustained the preaching of Saint John the Baptist; and it was in silence, in the mysterious encounter with the Lord of the desert that John became profoundly humble. Humility is not an attitude that can be improvised and cultivated from without. Humility blossoms from within. True humility, Christian humility is the fruit of the experience of God, an experience that throws us to the ground with our foreheads in the dust, an experience that fills us with the spirit of adoration. The link between humility and adoration cannot be emphasized enough. The adoring soul will be humble; the humble soul will adore. John emerges from the silence of the desert a profoundly humble man. In the desert he came face to face with God and everything in him became adoration.
Friend of the Bridegroom
Saint John insists that his mission is one of humble preparation: “I am not he whom you think me to be: but behold, there cometh one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose” (Acts 13:25). The people are impressed by this wild-looking prophet who comes out of years of silence and austerity in the desert. John dispels all ambiguity concerning his own person. “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom” (John 3:29). Even when admiring crowds gather around him and respond to his word, John remains utterly lucid. His humility is not swayed; he is at the service of the Bridegroom, and to the Bridegroom alone belongs the bride.
Saint John gives himself the most beautiful title to which a servant of Christ, especially a priest, can aspire. John is the friend of the Bridegroom. “The friend of the bridegroom,” he says, “who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:29-30).
A Burning and Shining Lamp
The vocation of John, the humble friend of the Bridegroom, was to be visible only for a time. “He was a burning and shining lamp,” says Our Lord, “and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (John 5:35). John’s shining light was to be hidden away in the darkness of a prison cell. The Bridegroom had arrived; the Friend of the Bridegroom had to disappear. The voice of John the Baptist had been heard crying in the wilderness, denouncing sin, calling men to justice and sinners to repentance. But, then, the voice of the Eternal Father was heard, coming from heaven: “Thou art my Son, the Beloved; with thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). After this, the voice of the Baptist was heard less and less, until finally, it was silenced by death, a cruel and ignominious death not unlike the immolation of the Lamb which it prefigured.
Witness to the Light
Today’s solemnity confirms and deepens the monastic call to silence and to humility. Graced from the womb of his mother in view of an extraordinary mission, Saint John the Baptist served the designs of the Father for the length of time and in the place determined by the Father’s loving providence. “Sent from God, he came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (John 1:6-8).
Mysterious and Unexpected Turns
John the Baptist knew that he was destined to return to the hidden life, to a life of silence and obscurity, like the grain of wheat which falls into the earth and dies in order to bear much fruit (Jn 12:24). He shows us that every vocation is subject to mysterious and unexpected turns and yes, every vocation is subject to the mystery of the Cross, sometimes in dramatic ways, but more often in the humble obscurity of day to day existence. These things are necessary if we are to decrease and allow the Lord Jesus to increase. To each one of us, Saint John the Baptist says: “Prepare to disappear.”
The Imprint of the Lamb
Saint John the Baptist shows us that the hidden and silent life is a necessary and inescapable part of discipleship. A vocation that is not marked with the sign of the Cross is suspect. A life that is without its moments of obscurity, silence and apparent uselessness, does not bear the imprint of the Lamb. The more a soul is surrendered to the love of the Bridegroom, the more deeply will that soul be marked by the Cross.
Marked By the Cross
Ultimately, the sign of the authenticity of the mission of Saint John the Baptist is his participation in the Passion and Cross of Jesus, in Jesus’ paschal humiliation, in Jesus’ going down into the valley of the shadow of death. And the sign that any vocation is blessed by God is that it is marked by the Cross.