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On the paradoxical, challenging figure of the Forerunner

The greatness of John the Baptist is to remind us with unsparing bluntness and searing simplicity that our job as Christians is constantly to be decreasing so that Christ may increase in us.

Detail from "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist" (c. 1869) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (Image: WikiArt.org)

It is always a good day when John the Baptist shows up in the liturgical calendar! In fact, as you may know, he has more feasts than anybody else apart from the Lord and His Mother. Most saints must be content with one day, but John has at least seven that I know of in the Byzantine calendar. Today’s commemorates his death, which we keep not with mourning but with joy.

His importance has nothing to do with being a great or self-made man of power and worldly success.

One of the most absurdly misleading and self-justifying myths that Americans tell themselves about the foundation of their country is that of the self-made man, the ground-breaking pioneer who “opened up” the West, who pushed the frontiers of the American experiment and its “manifest destiny” until it ran across this continent and beyond. We still like to retail this nonsense when extolling inventors or business owners who are presented to us as though they alone had the idea, did all the work alone, and now deserve all of the glory.

These stories deliberately overlook the innumerable ways in which others played significant, and sometimes even decisive, roles in the rise to fame of these so-called “great men.”

Jesus, despite being the Word Incarnate, is not a “self-made” man, and his greatness is such that never goes anywhere by himself for the first time. He is not interested in being the first in the door to grab the best seat, or first into a new territory to conquer and colonize it and then take everything from it he can. He never goes anywhere alone but is always—to use a favorite word of Pope Francis—accompanied by others, indeed preceded by them.

Thus, he is preceded in conception by his young cousin, who was conceived some time before (on September 23, with birth on June 24th; whereas, of course, Jesus is not born until December 25 liturgically). He does not go to the Jordan to baptize himself, but he is met there by his cousin, who does the baptizing. He does not enter into a brutal and unjust death before his cousin already suffers such a wicked execution before him. And he does not enter Hades first, but has his cousin go there ahead of him, as one of the Vespers stichera for this feast’s vigil reminds us:

For he preceded the Life of all into Hades
to announce to those in darkness and the shadow of death
the coming of Christ our God, the Orient from on high,
whose mercy is beyond measure.

Jesus thus never goes anywhere on earth without having been preceded by the one whom we fete today, John the Baptist and Forerunner. To be a forerunner—the warm-up act, so the speak, before the main show—itself requires a profound humility. You will never have as many groupies, nor so large and enthusiastic an audience, as the star attraction, the main event; you will never command the highest fees in your industry; you will never be remembered with cover stories in Rolling Stone at your death.

Yet Jesus, remarking on John the Forerunner—John the Warm-Up act—emphatically stated: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…” (Mt 11:11). How could this be?

By any worldly standard, ancient or modern, John was not great, not a success, not a role-model for your children to endlessly watch on YouTube or TikTok. Instead, John was a freak, a weirdo, a loser. He wandered about eating bugs and whatever he could lay his hands on; he scorned the latest fashions in his appearance; and he held to all the wrong views about sex, marriage, fidelity, and political power.

Perhaps worst of all, in the eyes of today’s world and its real rulers—the busybodies in HR departments everywhere—was his “tone.” As this priest in England recently experienced, the refusal of euphemism to cloak the murderous actions of the state is still as offensive in our world as it was in the days of John’s confrontation with Herod, though perhaps in a slightly more genteel way today.

John’s greatness lies precisely in his humility and lack of self-interest. It is this self-sacrificing humility that lies behind his cousin’s glowing and mysterious praise. It is this humility and lack of concern for himself that enables him to eschew euphemism and to refuse soft speech and treacly talk about deadly serious matters.

As a humble man, he had no need of complicating matters to appear smart and sophisticated. The greatness of John, to my mind, has always been that he cuts through all our needlessly complicated theologizing, all our self-justifying theories of spirituality, to remind us with unsparing bluntness and searing simplicity that our job as Christians is constantly to be decreasing so that Christ may increase in us. Our job as Christians is always and only to say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

In doing so, we will discover that our own decreasing leads not to our diminishment; it is not a disdainful disappearing act in which we indulge our disordered tendencies to self-loathing to the point of oblivion. Our own decreasing-in-Christ is precisely the beginning of our own deification and thus glorification. We decrease so that God might increase in us, making us partakers of the divine nature. We decrease in our blindness, sinfulness, selfishness so that we can increase in our ability to see, to serve, and to sacrifice for others just as the Forerunner did, each of us in our own small, hidden, perhaps even “banal” ways.

And so, as we go through each moment of each day in the coming week, let us be asking ourselves constantly: “How can I decrease so that the light and glory of the resurrected Christ might increase in me?”


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 94 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

10 Comments

  1. I thank Adam DeVille for this veneration of St. John the Baptist, and I admire the wisdom of the Eastern Rite Churches in keeping before their eyes the memory of St. John the Baptist.

    I grieve for the Roman Catholic Church, that the memory and witness of John the Baptist is suffocated by the ignorant meddlers of the Bugnini cult, who connived to erase the name of the herald of Christ from the Confiteor, maiming the memory and identity of the Roman Catholic Church.

    And yet, against this iconoclasm, a good shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI, offered a beautiful veneration of John the Baptist, noting that the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, six months before the feast of the birth of Jesus, takes place around the summer solstice, when the days begin to shorten, which then-Cardinal Ratzinger describes (in his beautiful book “The Spirit of the Liturgy”) as a “liturgical and cosmic expression of the the Baptist’s words: ‘He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease’ (Jn 3:30).” And John gives way to Christ, the daylight dwindles down, for six months, all the way down to the winter solstice, and then comes the feast of The Nativity of Our Lord, and the days begin to lengthen…and then:

    “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

  2. I am at a loss to understand why the criticism of the founding of this nation fit the overall narrative and purpose of this article. Aside from the fact that it misrepresents the American story, and appears scornful of our rich heritage, it detracts from the intended message. It is more a political statement and is the kind of thing that adds to the divisiveness the nation is experiencing. I have traveled the world extensively, and while I am fond of many countries, I thank God to have been born in the US. (age 78, combat veteran, successful businessman that lived the American dream)

    • Well said. The irony of this man’s writing is that he is the kind of person to tell the rest of us ‘not to judge’. The very people he enjoys condemning may, in some cases, be holier and more humble than he is. It is the liberal left wing answer, as usual – jumping on today’s bandwagon. It puts me right off reading CWR.

    • Bravo!! I agree. The attack on the country is what struck me forcefully about this article. Funny how America haters can never answer this question. If the country is so rotten, why do people from around the world literally DIE in an effort to get here? It is true that in many instances, a breakthrough is preceded by the ground work of others. But the final credit goes to the person who persisted to push the invention or innovation over the finish line. Anything before that breakthrough is speculative dabbling. Close but no cigar , would be the saying. This sort of revisionist historical stuff is a little more than disgusting. As for John the Baptist, i was born on his Feast Day and have long been an admirer of his courage in telling the truth no matteyr how dangerous. Reminds me of where we sit now with suppression of free speech.

      • Is saying, as DeVille does, “One of the most absurdly misleading and self-justifying myths that Americans tell themselves about the foundation of their country is that of the self-made man…” actually anti-American and an attack on America? I don’t think so. It’s an attack on that particularly mythology, which I have read and seen many times and in many places. It is especially common within certain forms of Protestantism, but also holds weight in various secular circles. One can love America and criticize certain weaknesses or ideologies that are popular in America.

  3. What a politically-ideological laden piece of writing. Very disappointing. The author of this has a political bee in his bonnet and it might do well for him to stop pointing the accusing finger.

  4. In our cramped chronological time, the incarnate Christ is baptized by the forerunner John (and the Holy Spirit), but Himself is also a forerunner—to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

    But, under Islam, Jesus Christ, while honored, is reduced to a sort of prophetic John the Baptist, a forerunner announcing the coming of a successor prophet….Under Islam, biblical references to the Paraclete and the Comforter (Jn 14:15-17, 14:26, and 16:12, 13, 17), are understood as announcing the coming not of the Holy Spirit, but of the final Prophet Mohammed…

    Intricate word games (as we now also find routinely in Western politics and too often in some theological discourses). The Greek term “Paraclete” (Holy Spirit) is substituted by Muslim commentators with their presumably correct “Periclyte,” the Greek form of Ahmad or Mohammed (for example, so writes Abdullah Yusuf Ali, “The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary,” Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1938/1983, Q 7:157, fn. 1127, p. 388).

    A good focal point for interreligious dialogue, all in the interests of housebreaking religious parallelism or “pluralism.” Surely not proselytism, but maybe intercultural scholarship.

  5. ‘Among those born of women, none greater ..’ – used to be much puzzled by those verses before , glad that the Light in the Divine Will helps to clarify same more .. Adam who possessed the Divine Will till The Fall and being not born of women would have been greater than The Baptist .. and the latter likely did recognize , even in the womb in the greatness bestowed on him , that the times for the preparation for the Reign of the Divine Will is what is coming , in the miracle of The Incarnation ..

    https://luisapiccarreta.com/624-feast-of-st-john-the-baptist/

    There are also strong and organized efforts in our times , to discredit and distort The Word in line with what the tempter himself does in the desert ..

    The Way to happiness/ beatitudes being in holiness as narrated in the Sermon , how such an intent can bless us with the needed courage to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile , even in dealing with enemies through prayer is one such verse that is thrown around , in the effort to discredit The Lord and His teachings .
    Yet , we see that in The Passion , The Lord in discerning the genuine desire for answer does just that by speaking the truth , in the readiness to be slapped on the other cheek if such is in The Will of The Father , to thus bless the children with the same courage .

    Going the extra mile as well – how He is willing to come with us , in spite of ourselves being often the enemy towards The Lord and thus to oneself when we choose to rebel ..

    OTOH, He also did not hesitate to use the rod against hypocrisy , as mentioned in the gentle wisdom of the good and timely teachings of the Holy Father too for our times –
    https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2021-08/pope-hypocrisy-jeopardises-the-unity-of-the-church.html

    Thank God for the Holy Spirit , all who are in Him , helping us all to discern all such areas in us and around , to invoke Him , in the Breath of the New Life given us in generosity ..

  6. Since my comment is posted although I had second thoughts considering it too critical, I suppose I can ruminate on self loathing. That kind can when disappointed with oneself may have some moral value. The kind that John of the Cross meant, to clarify here, was other, more complex since he certainly recognized his value to the Discalced Carmelite reform, his spiritual counsel to the sisters. His poetry spoke to an immense recognition of his self worth seen in the flourishing of his unique personality by permitting Christ to be central. In that form of self effacement the person enrichens.

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