The Humble Saint
If you pay attention to titles in these inspirational pieces, you might have some guesses who the “humble saint” might be. Of course, I have made the attribution, so I obviously know whom I will name. But if I saw it cold, the first guess I would make is St. Francis, the venerable saint of poverty, nature and the animals. And that would have been so true. But the person I have so named, “the humble saint,” in this piece is St. John the Baptist.
John the Baptist actually has two saint days in the Catholic calendar. Both his birth and his death are celebrated on separate days in June and August. Only the parents of Jesus receive comparable honor in the Christian calendar. John the Baptist has intrigued me for a long time---almost as long as I have studied religion. In many ways, he is much easier to relate to than Jesus. Let’s look a bit closer at the man and his role within the faith tradition.
The Gospel of Luke gives the most detail about John the Baptist. The story of his conception and birth is told as a kind of counterpoint to the story of Jesus. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were quite old. But through angelic intervention, Elizabeth conceived and John was on the way. Zechariah had been in such disbelief, he was condemned to silence until the birth. You might say, Elizabeth’s pregnancy shut him up!
John was born and the setting for Jesus was established. The last verse of Luke’s initial chapter tells the story. “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (1:80) With this sparse description, John is ready for his role. He is strong in spirit. And the wilderness would be his domain until he would step out to play his role as the humble saint.
The role of John the Baptist is key to the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Mark is the oldest gospel and, therefore, influences the other three gospels. In the beginning Mark says he is narrating the gospel. Immediately, he sets up the Baptist’s role by quoting from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (1:2-3)
In this context it does not matter what Isaiah meant with his prophetic words. The gospel writer, Mark, is using Isaiah’s words to interpret the role of John the Baptist and his relationship to Jesus. And in so doing, Mark also is interpreting who Jesus is, namely, the Lord. Hence, John’s role is clear: he is the one to prepare the way. In contemporary times, we could compare him to the opening act, preparing the audience for the star to come. It is not a glamorous role, but most big shows have such a character. In the idiom of the day, this person is “second fiddle.” That is John the Baptist---second fiddle!
John is not unimportant. In fact, his message both prepares and anticipates the message that Jesus brings to the world. Again following Mark’s Gospel, we are told that John appeared in the wilderness, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1:4) John may be second fiddle, but he is on script. He is aware of the human tendency to sin---to miss the mark and to do less than the good thing. But he has a remedy: repent.
The language of repentance seems like old-time religion jargon. It does not resonate in contemporary ears. Let me reinterpret it, while keeping close to the original meaning. Repent means to quit doing the stupid stuff you are doing, be sorry and chart a new path. It is easy to see how applicable this is to our own contemporary context. Every day the news narrates stories of murder, cheating, lying, greed, etc. There is much repenting to do. However, it often takes a humble person to say what really needs to be done.
We all know that John played second fiddle to Jesus. He has been a model to me to be willing to play the role seemingly given to me. Culturally, we are fixated on the stars. This is true for sports figures, Hollywood actors and the like. John’s role was a supporting role. He was called to prepare the way. He was asked to be a witness to “one who is more powerful than I.” (Mk 1:7)
Because he was humble, he could pull it off. Instead of resenting his second fiddle role, he embraced it. Instead of thinking God might have made a mistake in not choosing him, John saw God’s mission for him. That becomes an important clue for me. Mistake or mission? Probably if I am working my own agenda, I would see things as mistakes, if I were not the lead-player. But if I can grasp the idea of mission, then I am willing to play my role---whatever that is.
I appreciate John’s story and modeling. Because of his humility, he could embrace mission and be mighty. He witnessed all the way---to his eventual martyrdom by beheading. He witnessed in life and in death. Only in humility is that possible. I am grateful to this humble saint for his witness and his inspiration.