John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ. He was the one who came before Him to make the pathway smooth, to make the crooked way straight. I believe this is exactly what all of us are called to do now with regard to other people, to make it smooth for them to find their way, and to help them to find a way which is straight, to the Lord.
I would like to single out a certain number of features in the person of St John the Baptist which I feel could teach us something about our situation, and what we should do, and what disposition of mind we should be in.
First of all, when you open St Mark’s Gospel you find that he is defined as a voice that shouts in the wilderness. He is not even defined as a prophet or a messenger of God. He has got so identified with the message, he has become so one with God’s own word which he has got to proclaim and to bring to people that one can no longer see him behind the message, hear the tune of his voice behind the thundering witness of God’s own spirit speaking through him.
This is one thing which we should learn. Too often when we bring a message, people can perceive us and a message which perhaps comes through us, because we are not sufficiently identified with what we have got to say. In order to be identified we must so read the Gospel, make it so much ourselves, and ourselves so much the Gospel, that when we speak from within it, in its name, it should be simply—whatever words we use and I am not speaking of quotations—it should be simply the Gospel that speaks and we should be like a voice—God’s voice. The second thing is that to attain to that state in which he could speak and not be noticed, in which all that people could perceive of him was a man who had been completely transformed into a message, into a vision, into a proclamation, meant he was a man who accepted to lay aside all that was selfish, grasping, all that was delighting selfishly in whatever he wanted to have. He had a pure heart, a clear mind, an unwavering will, a trained body, a complete mastery of self, so that when the message came, fear would not defeat him and make him silent; promises would not beguile him and make him silent, or simply the heaviness of the flesh, the heaviness of the mind, the heaviness of the heart, should not overcome the lightness and the lightening power of the spirit. This is something that is also our task.
I do not speak now of the forms of asceticism or the way in which one does it, but we must learn to be free, and to be free, we must acquire mastery over ourselves. This is terribly important, and to achieve that, we must learn to look and learn, but not only to look at people and situations—look at God and learn and hear. Obedience is vital. To obey the will of God requires a training. The will of God is madness, the will of God is paradoxical. You cannot adhere to the will of God for good reasons. More often what He often asks is an act of folly which we would not otherwise dare to commit. Remember Abraham: God promised him a son, and the son was born. He promised that the son would be a beginning of a generation of people more numerous than the sands of the shores; and Abraham believed Him. And then God commanded him to take his son and to bring him, a blood offering, to Him, and Abraham did it. He did not tell Him. ‘That contradicts your previous injunction; this is contrary to your promise.’ He trusted the Lord and did what the Lord said at that moment, leaving the Lord to fulfil promises the way He knows.
This happens to us also. We are called to act day after day, moment after moment, according to the will of God revealed within that moment when the difference between Christian action and just action resides in the fact that action must planned, action must not contradict action. There are no returns and moves back and sideways; it must be a straight course. If we want to act within the will of God, we must be like Christ who listens and proclaims the word, who gazes attentively at God who is at work, and when he has seen, performs the action which is implied in the willing, in the thinking, in the rich creative imaginings of God. This we must learn, but to do this, we must learn to master ourselves and become capable of acting not only when we agree, not only when we understand, but when we disagree somewhere within the old Adam in us, or when we cannot understand but say ‘I trust you, I will act with folly.’
The forerunner has another quality. Remember what he said: ‘I must decrease in order that you should increase.’ Our role is to cut straightways; our role is to make rough ways smooth, but when we have done this, we must step aside, and allow the Lord of life, Him for whom we are preparing the way, to come in a lordly manner, or with the humility of Christ come with the simplicity of His entry into Jerusalem. And we must be forgotten because as long as we loom large, people will not see Christ.
There is a way in which our absence is as necessary to the glory and action of God as our presence is at another moment.
Remember the other way in which the forerunner is defined. When speaking about himself he says that he is the friend of the bridegroom—the one who so loves the bride and the bridegroom that he brings them together, so loves them that he is the protector of their love, of their intimacy, of their peace, of their meeting, and whose vocation is to bring together bride and bridegroom— the living God and the living soul, and then stand guard to protect this meeting against any intrusion, but not to be party in this meeting, to be outside; that is his particular form of love and service. At the same time, we must be prepared also to face, in the name of the bride and groom whom we serve, in the name of this mystery of love, the coming of the kingdom; the conquest by God of all that is death, evil, sin, separation, meanness, which is too small for the measure and the stature of man. We must be prepared to speak to man the truth, God’s own truth, not our own.
Remember the way in which the forerunner spoke to Herod, the way in which he spoke to the multitudes. To do this we must have authority, and authority is not gained either by rank or by social standing. Authority is gained by this fusion between our own will and God’s own will; our own word and God’s own word, our own life and God’s own life, us and Him; then we can speak, and then our words, however hard, however sharp, however truthful, however deep they will go down, however much they separate body and soul, our words then will also be words of love, because God’s word is always the word that gives truth and light, love and life. And then we must be prepared not to see the results of what we have done. The forerunner died before he had seen Christ; coming to the end of his mission and fulfilling the promises of his vocation, he died. He died of his message, he died of the truth of God, he died because he had become identified with the message and the truth, because he was a friend of the bridegroom that had to decrease so that the bridegroom should have all the field.
We must be prepared for that. In every case, with regard to every soul, to every group, to every event, to every situation, there is this time for the forerunner and there is the time for him to decrease and die out—perhaps not physically, but in the memory of people, in their hearts, in their relationships. We must be prepared never to be remembered because what has been sown by the word is so rich, so overwhelming, that the forerunner, the one that has prepared the way, the one that has ploughed, the one that has sown, can be forgotten. This is joy. It is joy to see Christ, the Lord, grow to his full stature, to occupy his real position, to be the king and the lord and master, and the brother and the saviour and the joy and the freedom of those to whom we have come and said ‘He is coming, open yourself to him.’ This is what the scriptures call repentance or conversion.
Now I will tell you what a priest at the end of a Roman Mass says to the people—’Go’—it is a dismissal; but what is a dismissal ? Does it simply say the service is over, out of the chapel, while the congregation in a rather ambiguous way says: ‘Thanks be to God.’
No, it is not that. The dismissal means this: You have been on the Mount of Transfiguration, you have seen the glory of God, you have been on the road to Damascus, you have faced the living God, you have been in the upper chamber, you have been here and there in Galilee and Judaea, all the mysterious places where one meets God, and now having spent several days with him, he says now that so much has been given—go, your joy will never abandon you. What you have acquired, you will never lose as long as you remain faithful. Go now, and if truly you have discovered joy, how can you not give joy to others? If truly you have come nearer to truth, how can you keep it for yourself ? If truly something has been kindled in you which is life, are you going to allow anyone not to have a spark of this life ? It does not mean go round and tell everyone specifically religious things or use clerical phrases. It means that you should go into the world which is yours with a radiance, with a joy, with an intensity that will make everyone look at you and say ‘He has something he hadn’t before. Is it that truly God has come near? He has something he never had before and which I do not possess— joy, life, certainty, a new courage, a new daring, a vision, where can I get it?’
People will also say to you, ‘Mad you are’. I answer in those cases, and they are many, I say ‘ I am mad, but one thing I find strange. You who are wise call to the mad man, and the mad man is happy, alive and you feel dead; let us share my folly, it is God’s folly.’
You are now going to start. With God you go now, with him on all the ways, on all the roads; you can dance on the Mount of Transfiguration, you can bring concreteness of life for others. May God bless you in it with joy. I don’t know any other words than ‘with joy’—go with joy, bring joy, and then you will have brought everything else, because God is joy, he is life, he is intensity.
And may God bless you, and not only you but everyone, your family, you friends, those who have been, those who have not been here, those whom you will meet throughout your lives— bring them a spark.