Enigmatic John the Baptist 15


“Among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

“He must increase; I must decrease.”

Few saints have more than one feast or memorial celebrated in the liturgical calendar (notwithstanding 12 feasts for the Blessed Virgin Mary, not counting memorials). Saints Joseph, Peter, and Paul are venerated twice each year. The only other saint with two liturgical celebrations is John the Baptist.

In continuity with the way John is depicted in the Gospels, the Church presents John as an enigma. Not a pretty saint, yet oddly attractive…


Christ himself would put the question to John’s throng of devotees, “What on earth were you people thinking when you traipsed off to the desert to see this wretched guy?”

It was a loaded question. What he really meant to ask was, “So… why are you people still following me around?” The answer seemed to be obvious: “Well, John always pointed to you. Where else should we go?” The real question that should have risen in their minds was why does Jesus point to John? 

John died a humiliating death. After a life robed in camel hair, dieting mostly on insects, preaching repentance, and long days baptizing in muddy water, his reward was imprisonment, desolation, disillusion, and decapitation. He rose and fell like the sun, dark and red on the horizon, fading away into forgotten darkness, leaving not a trace behind but a memory and a vision.

John points to Jesus. Jesus points to John.

The feast of John’s birth in the liturgical calendar falls on June 24, six months before the birth of Christ. We celebrate John’s nativity during the apex of summer; Christ’s in the dead of winter. After John’s birth, the days grow shorter and shorter until Christmas; After Christmas, the days grow longer. He must increase; I must decrease.

When Christ tells us that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single grain but if it dies it bears much fruit, the crux of the argument is that if you want to bear fruit for the Kingdom, as John did, you have to die. It reminds me of an inscription on a tombstone in the vault of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The single phrase on the monument reads:

“DA MIHI ANIMAS COETERA TOLLE…” — Merry Cardinal del Val

“Just give me souls; you take the rest.”

Cardinal del Val is buried alongside Popes in the Vatican Crypt. He has not been canonized as a saint, although his cause was opened in 1953. And perhaps it’s oddly appropriate that he has not been given the title “Saint” yet. He did not ask for titles, just souls. That simple attitude of humility deeply represents the meaning of John’s words, “I must decrease; he must increase.”

Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
– Merry Cardinal del Val

15 comments

  1. When I read this post, it engrafted into my soul, how truly humble this Blessed Saint was. Even though I have read his story countless times, I truly never saw his “humility.” I saw his “story.” Thanks so much for sharing this as you did, as it really made me think. How much good we would do for ourselves to follow the wonderful example of John the Baptist. God Bless, SR

    • Your comment got me thinking about what true humility would entail: “How much good we would do for ourselves to follow the wonderful example of John the Baptist.” A lot of people would go out to the desert to see it, but to take up the camel hair shirt and live the life he lived… that’s another story. Of course, being humble does not mean dropping everything to live as a desert hermit. Living the life God calls each of us to live is really all it entails and that, of course, has ample trials of its own. As Saint Teresa of Avila once said, humility is truth.

      • You mean “I got you thinking?” Oh, my gosh! It is usually the other way around:>)))))) On a serious note though, so much of what you say here is true. First: Yes, we would do a great service to ourselves to follow the examples he set in place for us.
        Now for a question for you: Do you think “living the life God calls each of us to daily” is humility in and of itself? Would that go more on the lines of “obedience” or “both?”
        In any case I think St. Teresa of Avila said it best. Thank you for your thoughts on this. As usual with me, your thoughts bring forth more questions, and that is a “good point!” God Bless, SR

    • Living the life God calls each of us to daily is certainly more in line with obedience, but when it comes down to it, it takes a lot of humility to do that in practice. Sometimes we have to suspend our judgments and desires, deny ourselves, and patiently listen to what God really wants for us. When we receive the confirmation of God’s will in big and small things, we can proceed with confidence iffffff we have the humility to obey. Of course, you know by experience that when we are able to do this the consolation is abounding fruit and joy — the true sign that God is with us. The key ingredient for allowing the Holy Spirit to work in our life is humility. If we can muster up enough humility, the other virtues seem to fall in place.

      • Thanks so much for the answer. I like the “iffffff we have the humility to obey.” I guess that would be the first step in which we would fall into “obedience.” I guess we could actually say, “humility” is the “starting gate” to/for it all. Thanks again and God Bless,SR

  2. I have already printed the prayer and will be adding it to my prayers daily. My struggle thus far has been with my stubbornness to make my own choices and to really think about God’s purpose in what’s happening around me every day. I see this now. A big challenge!!
    John the Baptist is a mysterious and interesting man. I do so love the images you’ve included in this post.
    Thank you for the background on the feast days. I’d never considered the fact that Jesus pointed to John, only that Jesus was fulfilling the plan of Salvation by asking to be Baptised by him. This is something new to meditate on.
    I have a difficulty with understanding assertiveness and it’s place in
    day-to-day living in a secular environment, if I am to remain humble. Any advice?

    • You have chosen quite a tough challenge to be humble and assertive in day-to-day living in a secular environment, but it is the one God calls all Christians in the world (but not of the world) to live. Accepting that challenge is the first step. You have already mentioned almost any advice I can give you in your comment. Daily meditation is very important as well as going to daily Mass and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. Frequent confession not only assists us with the grace we need to live as a Christian in the world but it also helps us to grow in humility. Praying the Litany of Humility also helps a lot, because by praying it, not only are we asking God to help us with our humility, but the prayer itself also reminds us of the particular things we need to work on in order to live that virtue. The one thing I would like to add is having good, like-minded Christian friends close to you, with whom you can associate often. Prayer groups, Bible studies, spiritual conversations, and just fun activities with people who share your faith is one of the best ways to grow in Christian virtue. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.”

      Finally, count on my prayers. God bless!

  3. Love the post, love the painting of the “Infant St. John”, and especially I love the Litany of Humility. For a long time I had incorporated it into my daily prayers, and will do so again. Thank you for the reminder.

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