During this Advent season one must listen very carefully to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, the voice of humility. Indeed one must go into the wilderness of silence in order to hear it, for there is too much noise pollution all around us. The spiritual masters teach that humility leads to the birth of the true self. There is a famous Christmas sermon (sermon 101) by Meister Eckhart about how the Son of God is born in the soul. Detachment is required, and Eckhart cautions us that the natural man will not get very far, unless we detach from the many addictive behaviors which drag us down. Purity of heart and humility prepare the soul’s ground for this birth. The ground is where God touches the soul in silence and without any image. The ground is the birthplace of the Son of God and it is where we share his very life. “You should completely sink away from your you-ness and flow into his his-ness and your you and his his shall become one our so totally…” (quoted in The Harvest of Medieval Mysticism in Germany, by Bernard McGinn, p.181). Eckhart pushes the boundaries of a core saying of Christian mystics, “God became human so that the human might become God”.
John the Baptist was that voice crying in the wilderness. He regularly shows up during the Advent season at church and is well known for his calls to repentance and warnings of judgment to come. He lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and honey and wore camel’s hair clothing – a bit of a wild and crazy guy maybe? Most of his condemnations were reserved for the corrupt ruling classes and he spoke “truth to power” confronting Herod the governor. The most striking thing about him, however, was his humility. He constantly spoke about the One who was coming who was much greater than him, “One whose sandals I am unworthy to untie” (John 1:27). His role was to point people to the One who “would give light to those who sit in darkness … and guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). The greater was his humility the more was his Christ likeness.
Luke compares the birth of John and Jesus and tells us there were similarities. Did you know that John had an announcement of his birth by the angel Gabriel to his father, Zechariah? The same angel made the announcement of Jesus’ birth to his mother, Mary. There was a song about John’s birth by his father, Zechariah, the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), which is as inspiring as the more well-known Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) by Mary. Luke also tells us that John’s mother, Elizabeth, and the young Mary were related. Scholars think that these efforts to tie together the births of John and Jesus were to encourage the followers of John the Baptist to integrate into the early Christian Church. But in general the gospels make it clear that Jesus was the main event, an assessment shared by John the Baptist himself: “he must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
These words are a remarkable commentary on the spiritual life. The purpose of life surely is for the small self to yield to the greater Self, represented by Christ. John Main speaks of the yielding of the ego to the Spirit of God who dwells within us. So we grow to be more like Christ, the new creation. We cannot do this in our own strength; humility is our path.
One of the challenges we face when we try to meditate is for the ego to step aside and yield to the influence of the Spirit of God who makes a home within us. There cannot be two masters in the same house, at least where God is concerned. God is the Creator and I am the created one who depends for my existence on the creator. My ego may dispute this fact but there is no getting away from the basic theology of it. This truth holds true for all of life, not just meditation. We are not the captains of the ship, whatever pop culture may tell us.
Such a decreasing is a voluntary act whereby the ego yields to a greater reality. This is not the act of a weak ego but a mature ego which recognizes the importance of humility and service in human relationships. Every time we sit to meditate we participate in that decreasing.
Whereas there must be hundreds of paintings of the Annunciation to Mary, I could only find one about the annunciation to Zechariah, in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence, a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1490. John is one of the patron saints of the Santa Maria Novella and there is a series of frescos about his life in the chapel. It is one of the treasures that I missed on my 5 day visit to Florence in 2009, a good reason to make the trip again.
Artists have been much more interested in the death of John the Baptist than in his birth. Consequently there are many paintings of his head on a platter after Salome has danced a sexy dance for her uncle, Herod. I think that says more about the artists’ fascination with sex than with the meaning of John’s death, which might be thought of as the humility of the ego contrasted with Herod’s egomania. Sex, corruption, political jealousy and reprisals, narcissistic behavior, scapegoating the innocent while the powerful are not held to account – sounds very contemporary, does it not? God’s verdict has not changed: “the ax is lying at the root of the trees …” (Luke 3:9).
Annunciation to Zechariah by Ghirlandaio