John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me?” Jesus said to him in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him. (Matt 3:14-15).
And the Fourth Evangelist interrupts his poetic prologue to make sure his readers understand John’s proper place relative to Jesus: “He [i.e. John the Baptist] was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (John 1:8).
When Saint Paul, well into his missionary career, first met a group of disciples in Ephesus, he discovered that they thought receiving John’s baptism made them Christian, and he had to set them straight:
These things help us appreciate the powerful figure he must have been, even years after his death, in the days of early Christianity. Keeping this in mind, we are all the more impressed with what he says in today’s reading from chapter 3 in the Gospel of John. It seems that his disciples were disturbed by the growing influence and popularity of Jesus. They say to their master John, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and everyone is coming to him.” John the Baptist has to insist, “I am not the Messiah, but the one who was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.”
Isn’t it interesting that what the Baptist says about his relationship to Jesus is much like the relationship that St. Paul says we should have to fellow Christians? I’m thinking about what Paul writes to the Christians in the town of Philippi: “Humbly regard others a more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but everyone for those of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Then Paul proceeds to present Jesus as the ultimate model of that mindset: Jesus, “who did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness . . .” This is Paul’s way of celebrating the mystery of the revelation we celebrate in Christmas and in the Epiphany. Our Lord and Savior models the life of service to which he calls us.
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