The Precursor’s Greatness
Luke 1:57-66, 80
A man died and appeared at the pearly gates. St. Peter met him and asked, “Have you ever done anything that will entitle you to a heavenly reward?” “Well,” the man replied, “I think I remember one good thing I did. Once, on my way home late at night, passing through an isolated alley, I chanced upon a group of drug addicts. They were molesting a young woman. I approached them and ordered them to leave her alone, but they just ignored me. So, I came up to their leader, and grabbed his neck, smacked him on the face, kicked his groin, and pushed him down on the ground. Then I screamed at all the rest, ‘Now, get lost, you bastards! Don’t ever show your faces again here!’” St. Peter was impressed. “That’s amazing! When did this happen?” “Just a few minutes ago.”
The feasts of saints are usually celebrated on the day of their death, which is their birth into eternal life. In the calendar of the Catholic Church, there are only three feasts of birthdays: Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ), September 8 (the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and June 24 (the birth of St. John the Baptist). This clearly illustrates the great importance and vital role of John the Baptist in God’s plan of salvation. Jesus affirms this when he praised him: “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Lk 7:28).
What made St. John the Baptist great in the eyes of Jesus? In a nutshell, we can say that his greatness is based on his faithful fulfillment of his role as the precursor of the Messiah. He manifested this in three main qualities that are readily seen in his life.
The first is his humility. This virtue is not only about being lowly and unassuming, but also being truthful. When asked by the people who he is, he honestly replied: “I am not the Messiah. I am only the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’ I am not even worthy to unfasten his sandal straps. He must increase and I must decrease.” In short, he clearly illustrated that humility and truthfulness always go together. And anybody who has these virtues is indeed great. This is clear in the example of God. He is the Absolute Truth, and He “emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (cf. Phil 2:6-11). Hence, John’s greatness lies in his humility, “for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Mt 23:12).
Another quality that St. John displayed is his fidelity to his mission. From the beginning of his life, he is already aware of his mission, and he fulfilled it by faithfully pointing to the Messiah: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (Jn 1:29). He went about preaching a baptism of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 3:2). He even boldly challenged the Jewish authorities: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt 3:8). The people readily believed and followed him because he represents the true image of a prophet – “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey” (Mt 3:4). In short, in every moment of his life, he lived what he preached.
His third quality is his indomitable courage for the truth. This is because he knows fully well that charity and truth can never be separated. As Pope Benedict XVI tells us in Caritas in Veritate, “Truth without charity is empty, and charity without truth is blind.” Corollary to this, we can aptly say that telling the truth, no matter how painful it is to the recipient and no matter how hazardous it is to the messenger, is an act of profound charity.
This is where the example of St. John the Baptist is presented as an inspiring challenge to all of us. The reason why peace in the world is so elusive is because the truth is not proclaimed in full. In this age when we are now being ruled by what Pope Benedict XVI described as the “dictatorship of relativism”, heralds of the Gospel of Jesus must have the conviction and courage to proclaim the Absolute Truth. For as Jesus proclaimed, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).
The truth cannot be compromised. It has to be proclaimed and defended, even at the price of sacrifice and death. St. John shows us how to be a true herald of truth that leads to freedom. He fearlessly condemned the incestuous and adulterous relationship of King Herod with Herodias, his brother’s wife. He did this not to spite the king, but out of genuine charity, that is, to lead him back to the road of decency and righteousness. This, however, led to his imprisonment and martyrdom. The world needs prophets like St. John the Baptist.
It is truly sad that many prophets of the present time prefer to give only “safe” and “nice” homilies, wanting to please the crowd rather than proclaim the hard and absolute truths of the Gospel. This is the reason for the unabated and rampant spread of errors, immorality and evil in our present society. Pope Pius X condemned such behavior more than a century ago. “In our time more than ever before, the chief strength of the wicked, lies in the cowardice and weakness of good men… All the strength of Satan’s reign is due to the easy-going weakness of Catholics. Oh! if I might ask the Divine Redeemer, as the prophet Zechariah did in spirit: What are those wounds in the midst of Thy hands? The answer would not be doubtful: With these was I wounded in the house of them that loved Me. I was wounded by My friends, who did nothing to defend Me, and who, on every occasion, made themselves the accomplices of My adversaries. And this reproach can be leveled at the weak and timid Catholics of all countries” (Beatification of St. Joan of Arc, Dec. 13, 1908).
God invites us all to holiness and greatness. Let the example of St. John the Baptist urge us to respond eagerly to this call. The times we are in call for heroes and martyrs, not in the sense of shedding blood, but in courageous and consistent witness to the evangelical principles of truth, justice and moral righteousness. Like St. John the Baptist, let us become the voice in this modern wilderness proclaiming the message of conversion and hope: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
Santa Lucia Parish
J.P. Rizal Street, Bgy. Sta. Lucia
Novaliches, Quezon City 1117