Today’s feast of the birth of John the Baptist is important enough to eclipse the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time. And for good reason, for today marks the dawning of God’s salvation. Biblically, this dawning does not start with Jesus, but rather with John. In today’s reading from Acts, we see Paul highlight this point during his first recorded sermon: “John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance” (13:24).
John is important not merely because he announced the coming of the messiah, though the value of this should not be underplayed. John’s importance is framed in God’s providence, God’s unfolding plan to save the world. Malachi predicted a messenger, Elijah or an Elijah figure, who would prepare the way of the Lord (Mal 3:23). And Jesus clearly identifies John as a fulfilment of that prophecy (Mt 11:13–14; Lk 1:17).
Yet our first reading is not from Malachi; rather, it is part of the second of Isaiah’s Servant Songs. “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name” (Is 49:1). The beginning of this song echoes Jeremiah’s call (Jer 1:5) and the destiny God has for particularly important prophets.
Who then is this prophet-servant? On the one hand, the servant is Israel: “You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory” (49:3). On the other hand, the servant is a prophet sent to both restore Israel and be a “light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6). This is the great vision of the second servant song. God calls the servant (and Israel herself) to be a beacon for God’s universal redemption.
The image of a light to the nations has traditionally been a favorite symbol for the church. One can see, then, why the church has chosen these readings as the context for our remembrance of John. He is a bridge between the old covenant and the new, between the people of Israel and the church. He personifies both and charges both to be a light to the nations. And the appropriate way to be this light is to be a servant. So we are to be servants who illuminate not ourselves but God.
We celebrate the birth of John the Baptist at the summer solstice, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, and we celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice, when the sun is lowest. John is that great, bright beacon pointing to the light that humbly emerges to conquer the darkness in winter. He is a loud, brash and disturbing figure proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” His role is as best man to the groom, as someone who rejoices in decreasing as Christ must increase (Jn 3:29-30). Consider him a finger pointing to the moon. Do not let your glance become fixed on the finger or confuse the pointer with what it is pointing to. Paul reminds us of this: “As John was completing his course, he would say, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet’” (Acts 13:25).
Pointing to Christ is no easy task. Getting over the addiction to self, to being attached to all that we are and do and needing it all to come back to us: this is among the most difficult and cruelest challenges of asceticism. Consider this: It’s rush hour and someone wants to merge into your lane. You slow down (briefly and barely) to allow this. And then the person does not wave in acknowledgment. Obviously, this won’t wreck your day, but didn’t you just think to yourself, “Hey, where’s the wave—a little something for the effort?”
As John personifies God’s servant and indeed Israel, and the church personifies both, we would do well to regard John as a role model. We point to Christ. Even in the context of our own gifts, our own lights, we seek to use them to illuminate the source of all goodness and meaning in our lives. We delight when we can recede from center stage and let God’s glory be revealed.