There are so many evocative symbols surrounding John the Baptist in the four Gospels. Each gospel emphasizes a different point of view about John the Baptist. Mark and Matthew emphasize the prophetic nature of John, noting that he is out in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey. They link John the Baptist’s message to Isaiah 40:1-11, that emphasizes him as the prophet preparing the way for Jesus, through making the highway straight in every heart. Luke emphasizes the concern for the poor and the ethical demands for justice. In Luke we hear John the Baptist’s preaching, urging people to share their cloaks and food with the needy, demanding that tax collectors not line their pockets by taking more than is required from people and challenging soldiers to not use their force to extort and threaten people.
Here in John’s Gospel we get a more philosophical treatise on John the Baptist. The first chapter of the Gospel is a wonderful poetic description of what it means to call Jesus the Christ. He is the light coming into the darkness, the logos, the Word of God made flesh. The author has eloquently expressed the meaning of the messiah for the Greek philosophical mind. Jesus is Plato’s true logos and the Gnostics true light. The Christ is not just another wandering Sophist, but the fulfillment of what Greek philosophy was striving to understand. Paul often did the same thing, such as his sermon in Athens that started with an inscription to an Unknown God he had seen. (See Acts 17:22) Paul’s eloquent words, “In God we live and move and have our being,” were not original, but a quote of a Greek philosopher. (Acts 17:28) John is firmly within the tradition of contextualizing the gospel message to gain a hearing. Here in the first chapter he has done this well and also has been clear to show that John the Baptist points the way, though he was not the light himself.
One direction to head when preaching or praying this passage is to take John the Baptist’s attitude. John developed a great audience and power, but he also knew his role. He was a messenger, not the message. He baptized with water, but one was coming to baptize with the power of fire. John was not about self-aggrandizement, knowing that there was a point where he had to decrease so that Christ could increase. We are not the light, but we point towards the light that enlightens us. As St. Francis said, “We are the moon reflecting the rays of the sun from our surface.” The light that shines from us may be great as we allow more of ourselves to be open to the true light of Christ, but the source of light is still Christ.
Much of the pain and suffering around us comes from people imagining that they are the light themselves. In psychological terms, my mind turns to Carl Jung when thinking about light and darkness within us. Jung warned of the dangers of trying to live only in our light. The shadow within is dangerous when ignored. Jung believed that the things that we repress that we don’t want to know about ourselves create this shadow within us. In our attempt to be “children of light” we often repress and try to hide from our greed, selfishness, hostility, grandiosity and pain. We push these things from our conscious selves, but they rise up from our unconscious and control us. Jung writes:
“Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and a small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed. The shadow is very much a part of human nature, and it is only at night that no shadows exist.” (A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity” (1942) In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.286)
Jung said, “That which we dislike in ourselves we first repress, then we project it on to others and try to kill it.” (Sorry, from memory!) During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Jung wrote, “It is the face of our own shadow that glowers at us across the Iron Curtain. (Man and His Symbols, p.8)
If you don’t believe this, try a simple test. Monitor for one week what most angers you in the behavior of others. Reflect on whether any of these same qualities lie within your own heart. So often the things we really don’t like about ourselves are what anger us the most when we see it in someone else. This is why Jesus counseled people to remove the log in our own eye before going after the speck in someone else’s eye. Our shadow selves cause us to lift up in righteous indignation at the actions of others rather than look within and change. (For more on Jung and the shadow, go here.