A Courageous Witness of the Light
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles
commenting on today’s Gospel reading:
The cult of the Virgin Mary began to rise and develop in Jerusalem in the V century. A century earlier, in the IV century, the cult of John the Baptist was so widespread as to be considered universal.
The people paid tribute with an extraordinary veneration to this saint. He is the most represented in the art of all ages; there is no altarpiece, no group of saints in which he does not appear. He is covered with the characteristic camel’s hide, the belt around his waist and holding a stick that ends in the shape of a cross.
He is the patron of countless dioceses; shrines and churches are dedicated to him, beginning with the “mother of all” churches, St. John Lateran, founded by Constantine. The name John—translated in every language—is the most common name in the world. Many cities and countries were named after him (128 in Italy, 213 in France).
The Baptist is also loved by the Muslims. They named the famous Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, a symbol of interfaith dialogue, after him. How do we explain this sympathy?
The Baptist is not renowned as a miracle worker—this is, in general, a prerogative, which makes the saints popular. Whoever wants to obtain graces does not appeal to him, but to more powerful intercessors. So there are other reasons for such devotion.
The first reason is certainly Jesus’ praise of him: “When you went out to the desert, what did you expect to see? A reed swept by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? People who wear fine clothes live in palaces. What did you really go out to see? A prophet? Yes, indeed, and even more than a prophet. I tell you this: no one greater than John the Baptist has come forward from among the sons of women” (Mt 11:7-11).
Then, the simple people admired his austerity of life and his courage not to bend his head in front of the powerful. He defended the truth and justice with his life.
Finally, it should be said that it was mainly the monks who popularized his figure. Since the beginning of the fourth century, they populated the Judean desert where the Baptist had spent his life. They considered him one of them, a model of ascetic life and for this, they spread the cult.
The choice of his feast day—celebrated, since the time of St. Augustine, on the 24th of June—is linked to the summer solstice, the day when the sun reaching its zenith begins to set along the horizon. To believers, the decline of sunlight recalled the availability of the Baptist to disappear, to give the place to one who was greater than him. After recognizing in Jesus the expected messiah, he confided to his disciples: “My joy is now full. It is necessary that he increases but that I decrease” (Jn 3:29-30).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Great are those who know how to step aside after fulfilling their mission.”