Were you ever in a situation in which you said, or you heard, “Would someone please strike a match so that I can find the light switch?” I was, when I took 3 of my very young nephews on a guided tour of an underground cavern in San Antonio, Texas. When we got to the lowest point, a hundred feet below the surface, the lights that had illumined our way to that point all went out and we were engulfed in what had to be absolute darkness.
I grabbed the three boys, 6 or seven years old, and held them tight. The tour guide said, “Does anyone have a match or a flashlight?” Someone behind us did, and with the aid of it located a switch on the wall. Light never looked so good!
A real accident or a routine part of the tour I’ll never know; but either way it helps to make the point that a lesser light can lead to a greater light. And that’s what John the Baptist was and what he did. He said, “I am not the light. There is one coming after me whose sandal straps I am not worthy to unfasten.” And then, pointing to Jesus, he proclaimed, “There he is! He is the true light of the world!”
I doubt that there are many Christians who have never had even a small doubt concerning their faith – who Jesus is, in particular. I think that virtually all Christians, including the celebrated saints, have asked, “Is it all really true? Is he the messiah? Does he really live beyond death? Is he actually present to us now, especially in sacrament?”
If you are not ashamed of or disturbed by your doubts (as, I assure you, I am not by mine), if you agree that doubts can honorably co-exist with genuine faith, then I remind you that John the Baptist’s role in the unfolding of Christianity was to strengthen and to support faith in persons like you and me.
Faith is tested and proven by doubt. When it enters the picture, offering us an opposing option to what we have long believed, it forces us to make a choice and makes possible a deeper, stronger and more personal faith.
Just consider how powerful John’s testimony was. He was young, dynamic, articulate and brilliant, clear in his message and his mission. He was solidly connected with the past, the last and greatest of all the prophets who had for centuries been foretelling the coming of the messiah and urging the people to prepare. A forceful, courageous man who never minced words, he was at the same time humble and unselfish, never drawing attention to himself but directing it immediately to Jesus. He did not allow himself to be called a prophet; he was, he insisted, only a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord!”
He baptized, he said, only with water – nothing as compared with the Baptism with the Spirit that Jesus would give. John would not accept even the title “servant” because he knew that Jesus would present himself as the servant of all. He stood up against the corrupt powers of religion and government and dishonest wealth and accused them of playing God and denying God. In the prime of his manhood, he went from a dank prison to death by beheading, decreasing, as he put it, so that Jesus might increase.
John helps us, despite inevitable and respectable doubt, to believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the one who reveals to us most fully the mystery of the God who creates us, loves us, and eventually welcomes us into eternal life. John is the light that saw itself as little and that leads us to recognize Jesus, God’s chosen Light of the World.