During the American Revolutionary War, a distinguished gentleman in civilian clothing observed a corporal in the uniform of the Continental Army ordering his men to move a large beam. Because it was very heavy and the men were struggling with it, the gentleman asked the corporal, “Why don’t you help them?” The soldier took offense and responded indignantly, “Sir, I’m a corporal,” with the unspoken message, “That sort of physical labor is beneath me.” The man said, “I’m sorry;” then he removed his coat and helped the soldiers move the wood himself, while the corporal watched. After the beam was in place, the gentleman said to the corporal, “Whenever you haven’t enough men to do the job, call on your commander-in-chief. I’ll be glad to help.” With that, George Washington put on his coat and left (Homily notebook, “Greatness”).
General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, the father of his country, our first president, and probably the greatest American who ever lived, was humble enough to help shoulder a heavy beam in the presence of a proud but misguided corporal. Washington is known for his greatness, his courage, and his integrity; underlying these admirable virtues was a commitment to service. These same virtues are evident in the life of St. John the Baptist, and he too lived as one called to serve. As it was in the time of St. John 2000 years ago, and as it was in the time of George Washington 240 years ago, so it is today: true greatness lies in serving God and one another.
In every aspect of John’s life, he was geared toward serving God by preparing the way for His Son. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were faithful servants of God; that’s why Elizabeth was blessed with pregnancy, even though she was considered too old for this to occur. Zechariah didn’t believe this amazing news at first, so he was made mute by the angel who announced it. When it counted, however, Zechariah insisted that God’s command be obeyed: the boy’s name would be John, as the angel had foretold. In return, Zechariah received back his speech, and we can be sure that from then on he was very careful to trust and obey God’s word in everything.
Zechariah and Elizabeth taught young John well, helping him to grow up and mature in spirit, as the Gospel tells us. After John went off to live in the desert, he attracted crowds—and, as the Acts of the Apostles (13:22-26) remind us, he proclaimed a baptism of repentance and prepared the way for Jesus. In this he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (49:1-6): “I will make you a light to the nations, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Some people wondered whether John might himself be the Messiah, our long-awaited Savior, for he was obviously a great and holy man, but the Baptist rejected this idea and instead did everything he could to direct people to Jesus.
John the Baptist was a faithful servant of God, and there are three of his virtues in particular that we should try to imitate. First of all, he had courage. John didn’t hesitate to say some dangerous or unpopular things, including criticizing King Herod Antipas for adultery, which eventually led to his arrest and execution. We don’t necessarily have to denounce sin publicly, but we may have to correct family members and friends privately. There may be times when we face peer pressure, or when we should speak up when we know something is wrong; there may be occasions when we have to resist political correctness or defend our Catholic faith. These situations aren’t easy, but being servants of Christ sometimes means trying to be courageous. If we’re not brave and forthright and outspoken by nature, we must act as if we are, and ask God to supply what’s lacking.
A second important virtue John the Baptist possessed was integrity. He knew who he was and what he was called to do, and nothing could turn him away from this. John was quite popular with many people, and he could have used that popularity to become wealthy and powerful. Instead, he continued on with his mission by calling sinners to conversion and pointing people to the Kingdom of Heaven. Many of us do rather well for ourselves in the world; compared to most of the human race, as Americans, we’re quite wealthy and comfortable. Because we have a stake in this world, it’s very easy to become too concerned with earthly things, or to compromise our values in order to fit in with society. It takes integrity to stand up for what we believe, to hold ourselves tohigher standards than many other people live by, and to place God’s will first in allthings—but these efforts are expected of Christians.
The third virtue demonstrated by John the Baptist is humility. John not only stated thathe wasn’t the Messiah, but added that he personally wasn’t even worthy to unfasten the Messiah’s sandals. Humility isn’t a popular virtue in America; we like to claim that we’re #1, and we take pride in our country’s achievements, even as we value and fret over our own personal image and reputation. As Christians, however, we must be humble. This means recognizing that our talents come from God, not ourselves—and if He gave them to us, He must want us to use them for His glory and to benefit others. Being humble means not automatically looking down on others—especially those who are different from us—but assuming the best about them; it means considering others to be deserving of our attention and assistance and respect.
George Washington did great things, but it was his simple virtues which helped make him a great man. John the Baptist was a great saint, but it was his courage, integrity, and humility which made him a true servant. In the same way, we may have many great talents, resources, and opportunities, but it’s our simple willingness to serve that makes us truly pleasing to God.