The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:
There is a great deal of conversation these days about identity. ‘Who am I?’ is a perennial question. Even the shortest perusal of human history finds humanity asking the question again and again. The conversation goes in circles and devolves into despair when it fails to consider God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and our relationship to him. Jesus, truly God and truly human, sympathises with our weaknesses because he experienced temptation as we do, yet he did so without sinning (Hebrews 4.15). When he walked among us, he ate and drank, he laughed and cried, but he remained the obedient Son of the Father. Jesus taught us by his own example how to live and how to die. Christian identity is forged in him. Who I am, then, revolves around my life in Christ in whom I am truly alive (Ephesians 2.5).
God gives us a magnificent example of life in Christ with St John the Baptist whose birth we celebrate on 24 June. John is not only Jesus’s first cousin: John is also a prophet, the immediate herald and servant of Jesus, the Messiah. Since at least the fourth century, we Christians have commemorated John’s birth six months before Jesus’s to mark the reciprocity in their births, lives and deaths that sheds divine light on ‘who I am’.
Early in Luke’s Gospel, we find their two miraculous nativities recounted in detail. Jesus’s birth and John’s birth had been prophesied in the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 7.14 and 40.3–5; Micah 5.2 and Malachi 3.1). The Archangel Gabriel announces their births and provides their names to their parents. Their parents, in turn, prophesy about their sons: Zachariah in the Benedictus and Mary in the Magnificat. The difference is in the boys’ identities. John prepares a people for the Lord. Jesus is that Lord. John’s role is to ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’. John is a prophet. Jesus’s role is to ‘reign over the house of Jacob forever’. Jesus is a king. The juxtaposition of their births in Luke’s Gospel lends insight into the significance of both roles in relationship.
This relationship is borne out in their earthly lives. Jesus himself emphatically tells us, ‘among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist’ (Matthew 11.11a). The Book of Deuteronomy (34.10) speaks of the greatness of Moses as a prophet, whom the Lord knew face to face, but Jesus tells us that John is ‘more than a prophet’ (Matthew 11.9). The Gospel of John reports that John’s disciples, no doubt devoted to him, were confused about John’s relationship to Jesus, especially as Jesus’s mission began to eclipse John’s. ‘All are going to [Jesus]’, they say. ‘John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease”’ (John 3.25–30).
Jesus’s and John’s deaths are correlated. John is servant and herald of Jesus in his own passion. John is imprisoned for truth’s sake. Herod was living in sin; John would not be silent; and a cadre of religious and political leaders colluded in his arrest, imprisonment, suffering and murder (Matthew 14.1–12; Mark 6.14–29; Luke 9.7–9). Mutatis mutandis the same fate befalls Jesus, as each Holy Gospel recounts, the difference being, of course, that the grave could not hold the God-man, by whose merits John the Baptist was saved. There is a grotesque irony that in both cases no-one wanted anything other than the innocent blood of John and, later, of Jesus. Salome asked for John’s head at the bidding of the debauched Herodias, and the crowd asked for Jesus to be crucified at the bidding of the wicked chief priests.
St Augustine, preaching at Hippo Regius c. 428 on the Baptist’s Day, says, ‘… every human being is to be humbled before Christ, and thus John also…’ (Sermon 287). If we Christians want to know who we are, the humility of John is a good place to start. A stance of humility before the Lord Jesus was taken by the one greater than any other human being born to women. John was humble because he embraced his relationship to Jesus as his Lord and God. That stance of humility facilitated a life of service to the truth akin to Jesus’s and a death worthy of a Christian. John found his identity in Christ. We should do the same.
The Reverend Canon Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.