He must increase, but I must decrease.
Today is the last day of our unit, “Guide Us to Thy Perfect Light.” A new unit begins tomorrow. We prepared forty days of the Nativity Fast in order to celebrate Christmas. We have celebrated the Incarnation of Christ, and yesterday we celebrated His Theophany. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” have ended, and for those who haven’t done it yet (I have not), the Christmas decorations will be coming down shortly, the season now over.
Rather than forget about Christmas, or despair, as some do, that the joy of the season is over, why don’t we try to remember this journey? After all, the journey to the “Perfect Light” is ongoing. We need continual guidance from the star—the Word of God, Scripture, worship, the church, and others who guide us. We need to continually be guiding and encouraging others. These are two constants that need to be part of every day, not just during the forty days of the Nativity Fast and the 12 days of Christmas. And there is a third constant, and that is to recognize that to be guided and to guide others is not only a need, but a choice, and ideally a choice we elect to make daily throughout the year.
Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi all played critical roles in the story of the Nativity. And each one was faced with a choice. Would Mary be willing to carry the Son of God in her womb? Would Joseph stand by his betrothed? Would the shepherds go and see? Would the Magi continue to follow the star, not knowing where it would lead, or how long it would take?
Today is the feast of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. He plays an important role in the history of salvation. He is the last of the prophets, the last one who came before Christ, and he was the one who pointed to Christ. He foretold of Christ, like the other prophets, and then endorsed Jesus as the Christ, when he said “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) His entire life purpose had been to be the one who announced the Christ to the world. In John 3:28-30, John describes himself as a friend of the bridegroom. He says to his disciples, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before Him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hear him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
For those of you who are middle-aged football fans, you might remember the great Walter Payton, who was the running back for the Chicago Bears. He is arguably the best running back to ever have played the game (I’m not arguing that by the way, some people argue that). There was a fullback named Matt Suhey, who would block for Walter Payton. Many people don’t remember Matt Suhey, but I do. Because Walter Payton probably wouldn’t have been as great as he was, if he didn’t have the non-headline grabbing fullback running in front of him. Matt Suhey knew his role, and die-hard Bears fans certainly remember him.
The message of Christ does not spread itself. You are reading this message because at some point, someone brought the message of Christ to you. It might have been your parents, it might have been a friend, it might have been an author you read. But you are reading this message because some “Matt Suhey” led the way for you to find Christ and you followed. This process doesn’t happen just one time—we aren’t led to Christ just once for all time. Why? Because we are going to go through valleys in life and will need to be led back to Him. I am thankful that I have a few “fullbacks” who open my mind and my heart each time I can’t seem to find Christ on my own.
And on the other side, we are supposed to lead others to Christ, by opening up the opportunities for that to happen, whether that is speaking about him, or being a silent witness. We are conditioned in our world to want to be Walter Payton—we are conditioned to go after fame and fortune, to be “the guy” or “the girl” in whatever world we are in. And the truth of the matter, God’s truth, is that the one “who would be first among you must be the slave of all.” (Mark 10:44) Jesus backed that up by dying for us—the Lord Almighty, incarnate in the flesh, not only left His throne in the heavens to be with us, He allowed Himself to be nailed to a cross in order to die for us.
The ultimate “increase” in life isn’t yards piled up in a football game, or dollars piled up in a bank account, or property acquired and piled up, or a great group of friends, memorable trips, or a lavish lifestyle. The ultimate increase is when God opens the gates of heaven and reveals to us His perfect Light in its fullness, for eternity. The way there isn’t through “increase” the way the world encourages us to increase, but through increase of Christ in us, which comes through decrease of our egos and our personal desires and grows into an increasing desire to know Him.
In many ways, I relate to the figures of the Nativity story—I have my doubts like Joseph, I’m out in the cold like the shepherds wondering why life hasn’t gone the way I’d hoped it would, I’m following like the Magi but inwardly wondering where this is going and why it’s taking so long. There is even a little bit of the innkeeper in me, struggling to find a place for Christ to be in my life. The star is still up there, and when I look at it and let it guide me, I get somewhere. And when I forget to look, because I’m spending so much time looking down and around instead of looking up, I need guidance and encouragement to keep going. The good news is that I can choose to show up even when I feel like Joseph. I can choose to stay close to God even when I feel cold like the shepherds. I can choose to keep walking when I feel like the Magi. And I can choose to look up at the star at any time.
One thing we didn’t do enough of in this unit is talk about “the perfect Light” that we are being guided to. The “perfect” light is the light of Christ—experienced with glimpses and in small doses in this life, as we prepare to experience it fully for eternal life. The Magi would not have seen the star constantly—we do not see stars in the brightness of the day. But they rejoiced when they saw it and they let it continuously guide them each time they did. While we can experience Christ constantly in this life if we want to, the truth is that we can’t experience Him when we are sinning, and we all sin. We experience Him in repentance which is why continual repentance is important. The Magi followed the star until it came to rest where the Child was, and they experienced Christ in His fullness. The star wasn’t Christ, but it brought them joy because it led them to Christ. In this life, we will experience pieces of heaven if we look for them. But we won’t experience heaven and Christ in fullness in this life. Like the Magi, we must enjoy the “star” until we reach the destination.
Like each figure of the Nativity, we have a choice to make. And like John the Baptist said, it comes down to a choice of what gets the increase in your life—is it you, or is it Him? May we all continue on our journey to the perfect light, and may we do with the guidance of the star, guiding others as well, may we trust like Mary, obey like Joseph, worship like the angels, go like the shepherds, seek like the Magi, serve like Jesus, and rejoice like creation! To Him be the glory to the ages of ages. Amen.
God the Logos has appeared in the flesh to the human race. As He stood in the Jordan waiting to be baptized, the Forerunner said to Him, “How can I reach out with my hand and touch the head that controls the universe? Though as an infant You came from Mary, yet I know You to be the pre-eternal God. You walk on earth, You who are extolled by the Seraphim. And I do not know how a servant ought to baptize his Master. Incomprehensible Lord, glory to You.” (Ke Nin from the Kekeragaria of Vespers of St. John the Baptist, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: How is John the Baptist showing humility with this statement?