- Posted by Fr. Jeremiah Shryock, CFR
- On May 31, 2017
- 2 Comments
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jn 3:30
Too often when we speak about ourselves, we define our “I” by the passing things of this world. We call this false notion of ourselves our ego. For example, it is our accomplishments, failures, hopes, roles, and dreams that we are really speaking of and not our identity or our deepest “I.” We often think or say, “I am successful” for example if our salary fits into the category that society has deemed successful. We might say, “I am beautiful” if our physical makeup is in keeping with current fashion and trends. We could even say, “I am holy,” if we maintain an appearance of holiness by saying our prayers and serving others. We receive our identity then, our deepest “I” from either the empirical proof that this world provides or its lack thereof. If I have the proof that I am successful or beautiful, then I am. If that “proof” is lacking, then so am I.
The great tragedy in all of this is that too often we actually believe that we are those things; that our deepest identity can be found in the passing things of this world. But what happens when sickness, tragedy, or old age strikes? Who am I then? Does my identity change? Am I no longer successful, beautiful, or holy if I don’t have the empirical proof to back it up?
The Christian life can be summed up in those words of St. John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”(John 3:30) Who or what is this “I” that must decrease? It is not our “real self,” the self that is made “in the image and likeness of God,” (Genesis 1:26) but our “false self” that is desperately hoping to find its “I” by clinging to a whole array of attachments and illusions buried deep within our ego. Hence, this is what must decrease, this “I” whose foundation lies inside one’s own ego.
John the Baptist utters these profound words, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” after some of his disciples alert him to Jesus’s presence: “He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him.”(John 3:26) On a purely worldly level we could interpret John’s disciples as saying, “Hey, this Jesus guy is stealing all your disciples.” Yet John the Baptist, completely detached from his own ego and its illusions, responds, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him…whose sandal I am unworthy to untie.”(John 3:28: John 1:27)
In other words, John the Baptist recognizes that his mission, to announce the coming of the Messiah, is now approaching its completion. He is not threatened or angry at the presence of Jesus since Jesus is the very one whom he was preparing the people for when he cried out “Make straight the way of the Lord.”(John 1:23) Once John the Baptist recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah he realizes that now he must decrease and empty himself of his former “roles,” and all the possible illusions about himself that those roles could foster, so as to respond to the grace of God today.
If John the Baptist placed his identity merely in his role in God’s plan he would have been devastated. Who would he be, now that the Messiah has come and his mission of preparing the way for the Messiah is complete? Yet because of his great humility and the fact that he has spent his whole life obedient to the Lord, emptying himself of all those things his ego would like him to believe, John the Baptist is able, gracefully, to step aside and allow “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,”(John 1:29) to take center stage.
What in our lives do we need to empty ourselves of or in the words of John the Baptist, what needs to decrease? The automatic Christian answer to this question is sin. Though I would not disagree with that answer I would say that answer is simply not enough. Without detracting from the ugliness and seriousness of sin, Christianity is more than simply “sin management.” It is, to put it bluntly, total transformation, i.e. divinization, becoming “partakers of the divine nature.”(2 Peter 1:4)
In essence, divinization means becoming “God like.” How does one become “God like?” Primarily, by taking our eyes off of ourselves, including even our sins, and placing them upon Christ, allowing his love full access to every inch of our humanity. As this process deepens, Christ becomes not only our refuge and our strength but our entire life. We can then say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”(Galatians 2:20) In other words, the soul has discovered its true identity in Christ.
St. Paul tells the Galatians, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-29) Is St. Paul trying to disregard our uniqueness and the distinctions that exist among us? Of course not. What he is doing is reminding us that our identity is already complete, and that it cannot be found in our ethnicity, social status, or our sex. We received this identity not from anything we did, not because of the race or social class we were born into, not because society has deemed us “successful” or “beautiful,” but simply because “God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us,” (Ephesians 2:4) through Baptism has made us all sons and daughters of God.
Here then is our identity: we are sons and daughters of God. Now, and only now, can we live our lives as teachers, mothers, fathers, athletes, lawyers, cooks, or whatever role God has asked us to play in this world, all the while removing the illusions that these roles would reveal to us our deepest “I.”
The word “emptying” can cause fear inside of those who may hear it because it is often times assumed that by “emptying” we are speaking about a void, or an annihilation of the person. To be clear, by using the word “emptying” I am not speaking at all of annihilation or entering some kind of void of nothingness. By using the word “emptying” I could also use the phrase “letting go.” We empty ourselves, or let go of all that is within us that is not “true…honorable…just…pure…lovely…and gracious” (Philippians 4:8) in order to be filled with the fullness of God’s love and life.
Our ego, especially the attempt to discover our deepest “I” there, makes it difficult to perceive the grace of God at work within our lives. Hence, this “emptying” process is necessary to discover our deepest “I.” Without it we can live our entire lives merely swimming on the surface and be prohibited from discovering the tremendous depths that are inside of us. God, in his great mercy, invites us, through the words of John the Baptist to throw away all the junk we have been foolishly hoping in and to realize that right now our identity is firmly established and that it is something much greater than we could have ever imagined.