More than once I have seen the famous painting of Matthias Grünewald on the Issenheim altar of Colmar in France: Saint John the Baptist points with an overdesigned forefinger to Jesus crucified. The gesture of John is commented in a kind of speech-bubble with the words: “He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). The same John pointed to Jesus when he came to the river Jordan with the words: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World” (John 1:29).
Like John the Baptist we are called to be fingerposts and witnesses for the one about whom he said: “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (John 1:30). To be a prophet and a witness means: To prepare the ways for the one who is according to the prophet Isaiah “the light of the nations, so that (his) salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:60). Like John we are called to be forerunners of the Lord in a world which has so many mountains to be evened out and so many canyons to be filled up: mountains of hatred and canyons of prejudices; hills of pride and gaps of selfishness.
Being engaged in the way of John the Baptist means to commit ourselves totally, with our whole being. The famous forefinger on the altarpiece of Grünewald reminds us time and again the word of John the Baptist: “He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). We all want to be great. We all want to be as powerful as possible. We want to be among the winners and not the losers. We should always keep in mind that what counts at the very end is not the big number, not the power, not the money, not the academic degree, not the big name; at the very end counts only one thing: “He – Christ – must increase; I must decrease.” This is true not only for me as individual faithful, it is true for the Church. She has to give growth to Christ and his love. If then he gives visible growth also to her, we are grateful to God. Do not forget it when you are joining the huge crowds at the WYD in Krakow.
John the Baptist shows us still another dimension of great actuality: The experience of the desert, not only the desert as a geographical site, but the desert as a spiritual experience. Herod had John put into prison. From the darkness of the prison the Baptist sends some of his disciples to Jesus asking: “Are you the one who has to come or have we to wait for another one?” They will come back with the words of Jesus who referred to his messianic work: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:22-23). John remained in prison. He was called to be a witness of the salvation without having the possibility to see and to enjoy it. He had to believe in the liberation while being in prison; to be convinced of the light while living in complete darkness. During the last three months I had to think about this keeping in mind Fr. Tom who is still in the hands of the kidnappers.
Dear friends, the prophetic witness of John is not first of all his powerful word but his austere life and his hope which endures in the terrible darkness of the prison. Such faithfulness gave his words the credibility. May the Holy Spirit give you the strength and the capacity to indicate through your lives and your words “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, and to live the same life program: “He must increase; I must decrease.”