According to tradition, the celebration of the Birth of John the Baptist started in the 4th century. Since then, it was celebrated six months before the Nativity of Our Lord, on the summer solstice when the days get shorter and nights get longer. Come Christmas, it is the exact opposite, the days get longer and the nights shorter.
This is a beautiful symbolism that embodies the greatness of John the Baptist’s person. The greatest among the prophets, as the herald of the Savior, his proclamation remains a classic expression of his service: “I must decrease and he must increase.”
This is the wisdom and grace of mentors, who across cultures and ages always carry this pattern of dying that others may have life. This is the wisdom and grace of the sacrifice that the human heart and spirit make to allow the real hero to emerge and win the major battle that only he/she is ordained with as a life mission.
This is the dying and coming to life tandem of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. This is true for the literary and/or cinematic tandems of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars,” Gandalf and Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings,” and Dumbledore and Harry in “Harry Potter.” The wise mentor fades away to allow the anointed protégé to rise and shine—and only after the mentor has initiated the protégé to his/her life mission.
Each one of us, I believe, is ordained with a mission and, as far as this life mission is concerned, we are the only ones who can fulfill it. Our mission is very much intertwined with, if not rooted and grounded in, our identity. Who we are is so inherently related to why we are; why we are in this world and why in a specific context.
Today, I invite you to reflect on your mission, but from a very specific perspective—who is or are the John the Baptists in your life who helped announce your mission; or even more basic, who helped you discover and understand your mission?
This is a story shared by one of my Jesuit brothers who had spent years as a high school teacher.
In one of the crucial moments of our country’s transition from the Marcos years to the first decade of our renewed freedom and democratic space, his former students who were key leaders in two political camps were the two emissaries assigned to work out a possible alliance between the two camps to hold back recidivists bringing the country back to the old order.
It was a top-level meeting and a critical one for the country. He recalled the night they came together in Ateneo. He sat at the head of the conference table in the office they had borrowed for the “secret” meeting. On either side he had his two former high school students. It was small talk over dinner, recalling high school days.
Then the critical topic had to be put on the table. The Jesuit teacher introduced the point for discussion—why they were there, what had to be worked out, and how important it was for the future of the country. After the introduction, his two former students went on to discuss the stand of their respective camps, analyzed the situation, the things at stake, and how crucial it was for the country’s future to work together.
My Jesuit brother would tell me later on that at the moment his two former students took over and discussed issues in detail and in depth, he stood up from the table and prepared coffee.
“I must decrease and he must increase.” He felt that he had done his job for the meeting: He got them together to a meeting; he prepared a place where they could meet in “secret”; and introduced the issue or matter at hand.
Yes, he did also these. But he did so much more—many, many, many years earlier. He taught them well. He mentored them well. He was a good teacher and mentor because he brought his students to a point where they had no need for him as a teacher.
Yet they, many of his students, always came back to him when there were important things to reflect and decide on. He was always the mentor who listened to them—and always the mentor who helped them remember their dreams and remained connected to these dreams.
“I must decrease and he must increase.” How many mentors did we have who taught this by living it out in their relationship with us, their students or protégés? How many mentors do we have who would keep quiet when we say our piece—who would sit in a meeting and allow his former students, former protégés to take the lead—stand up, get coffee and serve them coffee?
In another story about John the Baptist (Mark 1: 4-11), perhaps the only one where he shared the stage with Christ, he breaks open the world stage for Christ. As the crowds flocked to him—John, not Christ—he pauses before his—John’s not Christ’s—“adoring crowds”; John stops them and points to Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God!”
At that moment, Christ discovers who he is and why he is sent into the world, his identity and his mission. It was, as Elizabeth Braddon puts it, “…it is at this moment, that he ‘heard’ a voice that would launch him on the path of teacher, prophet, healer, and would intimately connect him as a Spirit person—the mediator of the Divine. Something cosmic happened! The voice of confirmation—‘You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased!’ That basic affirmation of the Divine joy that launched Jesus and launches on the path of vocation.”
After this, the center stage shifts to Christ. John introduced the new star. He prepared the stage also—and he did it well. He dedicated his entire life, his best to this. He did all this knowing that he must decrease and the Christ must increase.
The Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist, we remember this today. We remember the grace and blessing of the John the Baptists in our life. The people who made us increase by their decreasing—our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our teachers, our mentors and guides, our beloved partners, our servant leaders, our true public servants—all those who bring out the best in us, allow us to be the best of who we are.
The Ben Kenobis to the Lukes, the Gandalfs to the Frodos, Dumbledores to the Harrys, the Johns to the Christs, all these are the dying and coming to life tandems in our life. Or as Christ raises it to the next level, “I came that others may have life and life to the full.”
Through time and across cultures, this remains as the one great task. This is the challenge to all leaders and servants of communities.
To us who are older, perhaps our days are getting shorter and our nights are getting longer. Yes, our lights will fade—or are fading—but remember—always remember—the cycle will come full circle. The lights will shine again and even if they are not our lights, they shall still shine. So long as lights continue to shine, our world will always live in hope that it is always a world on its way to getting better.
We must decrease and others increase—the hope, the future. It shall be a better world.