The seventh chapter of The Imitation of Christ (1,7) rails against vanity and pride and exalts humility (as we’ve seen, and will continue to see, this is a common theme of Kempis’s and, frankly, of any solid work of Christian spirituality — especially the Bible). No better example of humility among human persons, aside from Our Lady, is there than John the Baptist.
John was quite famous in his time. As we have already read, the people flocked to him. His message was severe, but his dynamism was evident. He had his own group of loyal followers. If anyone could have succumbed to pride through legitimate popularity it was John. But it’s evident from his words above that he always knew his role and his place as a precursor to the Savior, the Son of God (a title he confers on Jesus in the last words of today’s reading).
John is clear why his cousin “ranks ahead of me”: it is “because he existed before me.” Now John’s parents certainly would have told him that Jesus was born six months after he was, so Jesus came into existence in the flesh after John. But Elizabeth, his mom, would also have told him that Jesus was the eternal Lord, as she exclaimed upon meeting Jesus’ mother Mary (see Lk 1:39-45, esp. 43). In addition, how many times must Zechariah, his dad, have regaled him with the story of his encounter with the angel and what it meant for young John (see Lk 1:5-25, esp. 15-17)?
John undoubtedly would have taken this all to heart and meditated upon it often. It is solid theological speculation that John was sanctified in the womb (“He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” — Lk 1:15) and that this happened when Mary visited as indicated by when he “leaped for joy” inside Elizabeth (Lk 1:44) who at that moment was “filled with the holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41). So, it may well be that he never committed a personal sin. In any case, he was a most fitting vessel to be the last, and greatest, of the Old Testament prophets who actually saw what they “longed to see” (Mt 13:17).
John was at peace with his mission, his exiting of the stage, and his ultimate demise. He followed the Lord’s will perfectly and was able to meet death with the peace that comes with a clear conscience and a perfect submission to God’s will. If we do the same we will hear the words that John undoubtedly heard upon his martyrdom: “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come, share your master’s joy.’” (Mt 25:21)
Preaching of St. John the Baptist (1486–1490) by Domenico Ghirlandaio