Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
The lives of the saints are a source of inspiration and encouragement to many Christians in their own struggles to grow in love of Christ. And for this reason we more easily identify with those saints who struggled as we do and are perhaps less drawn to the towering giants like Saint Paul or even a modern day saint like John Paul II, who seem to have always been holy, zealous and fearless. The powerful and fiery John the Baptist who seems to emerge from the desert already a saint seems to fit into this latter category. Or does he?
Unfortunately, we know very little about his life prior to his appearance preaching repentance and preparing the Way of the Lord. And yet, two instances from his life suggest that he too struggled–not only at the beginning but even towards the end of his life. You will recall the incident when from prison he sent some of his disciples to inquire of Christ are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? From the darkness of the dungeon he seems to have been plagued by doubts and second thoughts about the one he had earlier proclaimed to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The other incident suggesting struggle occurs in today’s Gospel with the inclusion of the simple word “admitted.” As we know, John wasn’t the only solitary figure preaching repentance; the Gospel makes it clear that he had gathered a band of disciples around him who were, presumably, very devoted to him. And despite his well-known proclamation he must increase and I must decrease, this stepping aside and out of the limelight for the Christ was not achieved without a struggle. The fact that John the Baptist is described as admitting rather than declaring that he was not the Christ suggests an element of reluctance for someone who was not totally immune to the adulation afforded him by the large crowds who sought him out. This is not to denigrate John; after all, even Jesus (after the miracle of the loaves) was said to have escaped the crowd who were intent on making him king–suggesting that this was a real temptation to be a very different king and bypass the crowd.
Although we may not be in any danger of being made king or otherwise achieving celebrity status, we too are not immune from pride, vainglory, and the desire to be special, unique, and more than just average. We resist this temptation not just because it is sinful to be proud and vainglorious, but also because it is seldom if ever the path to true happiness and joy. On the contrary the lives of many contemporary celebrities witness to fame’s inability to bring true inner peace and happiness. And this is partly because fame and a celebrity status isolates us from those fundamental human relationships that give true meaning and purpose to life. The adulation of the crowd or even the esteem of others places one apart from those who acclaim us. And when it comes to God, the true tragedy of pride is that in not giving God the glory for whatever is praiseworthy in us, we separate and isolate ourselves from the most essential relationship that we have with God in whom alone we become everything we were created to be.
And so if we unhappily become aware that we too are not immune from pride and in some sense desire the limelight–however modest and limelight may be–let us take heart that some very holy and humble people were tempted in just the same way. And then let us pray for the grace to realize that the only limelight we really need is the transforming and glorifying light and radiance of God’s unconditional love by which we are loved into perfection and are granted that unsurpassable and indestructible fame of becoming God in Christ and cherished and beloved sons and daughters of the Eternal Father.