Today we see the humility and true greatness of Saint John the Forerunner. When told that Jesus had started baptizing and when questioned about Him, John responded by pointing out that his task was simply to bear witness to Jesus Christ. ‘He must increase, but I must decrease,’ he said.
Here we see someone with true self-knowledge. Saint John knows who he is and what his task is – and he doesn’t need to make himself greater than he is. And herein, paradoxically, lies his true greatness. Saint Augustine comments,
There were prophets before John, and many of them, and great ones, worthy of God, full of God, who foretold the Saviour and bore witness to the truth. Yet for all that, of none of them could it be said, as it was said of John, ‘Among those born of women, none has arisen greater than John the Baptist.’ So what is the meaning of such greatness, sent before the great One? It is a testimonial to extraordinary humility. After all, he was so great that people could think he was the Christ. John could have taken advantage of people’s mistake, and he would not have had to work hard to persuade them he was the Christ, because those who heard and saw him had already thought this without his saying it. There was no need for him to sow the seeds of the error; all he would have to do would be to confirm it.
He, however, as the bridegroom’s friend, is jealous for the bridegroom. And he does not put himself forward as an adulterer in the bridegroom’s place but bears witness to his friend and commends the one who really was the bridegroom to the bride. He wants to be loved in him and hates the idea of being loved instead of him. ‘The one who has the bride,’ he says, ‘is the bridegroom.’ And if you were to say, ‘What about you?’ he would respond, ‘But the friend of the bridegroom stands and hears and joyfully rejoices because of the bridegroom’s voice.’ ‘Stands and hears.’ The disciple hears the master; because he hears, he stands, because if he does not hear, he falls. It is here that John’s greatness is supremely brought to our notice; that when he could be thought to be the Christ, he preferred to bear witness to the Christ, to bring Him to our notice. He preferred to humble himself rather than to be taken for the Christ and taken in by himself.
The Holy Gospel according to Saint John 3:22-33:
At that time, Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there He remained with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people came and were baptized. For John had not yet been put in prison.
Now a discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew over purifying. And they came to John, and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before Him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.
“He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth belongs to the earth, and of the earth he speaks; He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what He has seen and heard, yet no one receives His testimony; he who receives His testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.”