As I get older and complete another year in the Holy Priesthood, I find in the person of St. John the Baptist not only a great example of Christian perfection but a powerful model for my priestly life.
He is often overlooked, usually trotted out in Advent and Lent as the primary pointer to Christ; he then is relegated to the proverbial back-burner as if this strange man in his strange clothes has nothing really to say to me as a modern person in the contemporary world.
But I beg to differ!
For me, he showed a radical desire to do God’s will and would not allow anyone to use him as a distraction from the true Person we have all been waiting for: Christ.
My attraction to him began when I realized that he was, by lineage, a Jewish priest. We know from Scripture that his dad, Zechariah, was a priest who served in the Temple. Thus, John would have been expected to fulfill that role as well when he grew up. His family was probably wealthy and he could, upon reaching adulthood, marry and begin a family while donning costly vestments and taking his turn in the magnificent temple liturgies.
It did not turn out that way. If they were still alive at the time of his ministry, I am sure that Elizabeth and Zechariah would have realized that they had a handful in their only child! Instead of the vestments, he embraced animal fur. Instead of fine foods from the table of his family, he chose to eat insects. Instead of preaching in the Temple, he stood in the wildness of the desert. Instead of keeping quiet and just doing his sacred Temple duties, he was speaking the truth of God’s Law to the perverse power of Herod’s sin. What’s a mother to do!?
I am sure that the holy parents of this great saint understood the ways of God’s prophecy. Their son resembled the great prophets who were persecuted and who took extraordinary means to convey the message of God. But still, in their old age, this must have been difficult to explain to the family who did not even understand naming him John!
John, as a person of privilege, must have struggled with letting go of the comforts of home and family and going out into the desert. He was certainly not a people-pleaser!
He was also not an egotistical type. While so many recognized his holiness, he refused to become central. He was only a preparer of the way for the true Lamb of God Whose sandals he was unworthy to unlatch (Mark 1:7). What an echo of the humility of his mother Elizabeth who greeted our Blessed Lady with the words, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). It seems that humility ran in the family!
I find great inspiration here for the life of a priest, yet not limited to that. It actually says something to each individual Christian about the basic importance of humility. The attitude of each believer must be that we are preparers of the Messiah in the lives of those around us. We are not the Christ, but we are to prepare His way (Isaiah 40:3).
A priest does that preeminently. Hence the temptation leads to a sin that is more disastrous in the life of a priest, for he is called upon to be a public example of the life of a Christian. When a priest makes himself the center of attention and does the good deeds of a priest to inculcate popularity, he has fundamentally betrayed the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Like John, the priest as well as the Christian needs to point to Christ with every fiber of one’s being and say the holy words of St. John the Baptist: “He must increase. I must decrease” (John 3:30). Until a priest or a Christian can creditably and passionately say that, they are not building the Kingdom of God but the kingdom of self. And if there is one major heresy in today’s world, it is the substitution of the self for the God we need to worship and proclaim. We have become the idols of our age.
I find in this aspect of St. John a great deal of freedom. We are not supposed to carry around this huge ego of ours that seems to be a burden in every circumstance. To be free to do what God wants and to let go of the demands of the ego gives us a taste of “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21)!