And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is made manifest we may have confidence, and not be driven from him by shame at his arrival.1 John 2:28
And he avowed, and did not deny, and confessed that: “I am not the Anointed. And they asked him “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he says, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? So that we may give an answer to those who have sent us, what do you say concerning yourself?” He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”John 1:20-23
The gospel today begins with John the Baptist’s being asked to identify himself. The priests and Levites ask him, “Who are you?” He first denies that he is a reincarnation of one who has been before, Elijah, or the one who has been promised, the great prophet, “like unto Moses.” He then declares himself as “a voice” who is to “make straight the way of the Lord.” He does not identify himself by who he is, but rather by what he does, by what he is for. He comes to prepare the way for one who is far greater than himself.
In John the Baptist we see that what we call “humility” is not only an attitude or a characteristic of a person, it is the very core of personal identity. John identifies himself in terms of his “place” in the work of Jesus. On New Year’s Day a friend told me that she had been told of a new year’s journal technique that suggested that one write out the meaning and purpose of one’s life as of the present moment. As I reflected on this technique, I realized that to attempt to describe the purpose of our life is, in reality, to attempt to describe who we are. Adrian van Kaam says that our life is “a task, an assignment, a mysterious call.” In other words we are as (and how) we act. We become truly and distinctively human, however, as we shift from unconscious and habitual reaction to intentional and deliberate action, as we act in accord with the unique task, assignment, and call that we are.
Humility then is, at least in part, a recognition that who I am is a servant of God. When Theodore James Ryken experiences his powerful conversion at age 19, he experiences being put in his place, and as a result he turns toward God, falls in love, and puts himself in God’s service. The conversion is one from being turned in on himself to recognizing his place in relationship to God’s call for him, as a unique servant of God’s ongoing creation of life and world. In Ryken, as in John the Baptist, we see the opposite movement of that of Adam and Eve after they succumb to the temptation of the serpent. Instead of turning toward God, they hide from God because their eyes have been opened and they see that they are naked, and they are ashamed. As they seek to possess the promises of the serpent, including “wisdom,” they become self-conscious. In Ryken we see the conversion, the turn back to God. Turning toward God is a turning toward life and world; it is a readiness to do the work that God gives us to do.
The author of 1 John cautions us to abide in God so that when God is manifest we may not hide from God in shame like Adam and Eve. John identifies himself in terms of his work, a work that points to one who is far greater than himself. The very core of his identity is a transparency that summons others not to see him but, through his work, to recognize the one whose way he prepares. He truly exists only in relationship to Jesus, and so everything he does is in light of and service to that relationship. As John the Baptist says in John 3:30: “It is necessary for that one to increase, but for me to decrease.” In the scriptural sense, we come most fully to be as we decrease by disappearing into our work so that the One who is to come may increase.
Having turned toward God, fallen in love, and given himself to God’s service, Ryken had a burning desire that those who had never known or heard of this possibility of life could come to do so. He imagined, anticipated, and then gave birth to a brotherhood who would, as had St. Francis Xavier, go out to serve the word by sharing and teaching the good news of the gospel. These brothers, however, were not to be priests but were to remain as lay persons in religious community. They were to till the soil of human hearts in preparation for the sacramental actions of the priests, but they were not to be the priests. They were to serve the spiritual hunger of those who had not heard of God and God’s gifts of grace, but they were not to have office or particular recognition, either in the world or the church. In their common and ordinary lives they were to bear witness to and evoke in those they served the love of God that is “common to all persons.” They were to do the hard work of evangelizing and teaching, but then they were to disappear in favor of the priests who would baptize.
Perhaps it was only that Ryken himself was unable to attain the priesthood that he saw his brotherhood as he did. Yet, perhaps it was also that he profoundly recognized the danger of position and office in the life of discipleship. Perhaps he well understood that our innate egoism is forever tempted to assume for ourselves the recognition that is due to God alone. When our own self-orientation disappears into our work, then there is nothing or no one of whom to be ashamed. As John the Baptist identifies himself by his work to “make straight the way of the Lord,” so each of us comes to be faithful, to be truly ourselves, as we become indistinguishable from the work that we do, from the service to the world to which we have been called. In our day, it is quite likely that Ryken would not see the work of his brotherhood as primarily a “preparing the way for the priest.” It is likely, however, that he would still look to that place where service to the gospel would mean working without status or recognition, a doing of a work that is common and ordinary and that cannot be done but by those who seek no name or title for themselves. It must be, as it was for John, a willingness to decrease that the Lord, he “the thong of whose sandals [we] are not worthy to untie,” may increase.
In our time, that work is unlikely to mean proselytization to the Catholic or even Christian faith traditions in the sense it did for Ryken. Yet, it will still require our humble obedience to a call that comes by living fully “the common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of every day life.” It will mean a willingness to be nobody as our world and culture defines it, so that we may respond not to the pulsations and directives of an egotistic and narcissistic culture, but to the work the task, assignment, and mysterious call that is our actual personal and communal life. It will mean crying out in the deserts of our time, deserts of poverty and hunger but also of affluence and desperation, “make straight the way of the Lord.”
. . . we should approach with caution Nietzsche’s claim that “the instinct of fear bids us to know.,” for if fear alone could motivate the will to know, all of living nature would seek after knowledge. It requires a distinct form of anxiety — a tear in the fabric of instinct, reflex, and routine — to jolt a species into conceptual mediation, sense-making, and language. In short, into consciousness. This tear must come from within the being of Homo sapiens, in such a way that its lacerations provoke a self-awareness that takes cognizance of the surrounding world in its enigma. The ancients suggested as much when they declared that human consciousness first sprang from wonder, which can take the form of marvel, puzzlement, or dread. In one form or the other, it arises as a response to the overwhelming strangeness of the world, above all the strangeness of our being in it.Robert Pogue Harrison, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age, p. 12