Cast your mind back to 1966, if you can. If that was before you’re time, you’re almost bound to have seen the repeat many times.
I’m not thinking of England winning the World cup – that’s never been repeated. The Frost Report, presented by a fresh faced young David Frost, and that memorable sketch featuring six feet five John Cleese, five feet eight Ronnie Barker, and five feet one Ronnie Corbett. Looking at Barker, Cleese says, “I look down on him because I am upper class”. Barker, looking firstly to Cleese and then to Corbett, replies, “I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class”. Then there’s a brief silence before the diminutive Ronnie Corbett says, “I know my place”; and that admission becomes Corbett’s recurring punch line throughout the sketch.
“I know my place” rather reminds me of John the Baptist. Saying that, we don’t know where John the Baptist fits into that sliding scale. The New Testament tells us very about John: his ministry of Baptism, obviously, including his baptising of Jesus about which we’ve just heard. It tells us about John’s rough dress and rudimentary diet. It tells us a little about his death and his birth. We’re even told that “the child grew and became strong in spirit”. But we’ve no way of knowing how much he grew. We have no inkling of whether the bonny baby John finished up Cleese-sized, Barker-sized, or Corbett-sized. We have no idea of where fitted in, either physically, or socially.
That said, in his character John the Baptist always reminds me of Ronnie Corbett. Like Ronnie Corbett, John the Baptist knew his place. This is what this morning’s gospel reading was all about: “the one who is more powerful than l is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals”. A lesser man than John the Baptist might have been a bit fed up with someone coming after him ranking ahead of him. But John knew his place.
If you delve into the history of comedy a little deeper, way beyond Cleese, Barker, and Corbett, there’s much to be learned. In his book, ‘Gracie – A Love Story’, George Burns sheds light on some other well-known entertainers of his era. In particular, he claims that at the Palace Theatre, Broadway, Al Jolson would keep the taps running in his dressing room so as to drown out the applause being given to other performers on stage. Al Jolson was obviously blessed that leaving the taps running didn’t cause him other problem! Leaving the taps running to drown out other people’s applause is a far cry from John the Baptist. John would have gladly turned off the taps, and opened the dressing room door, precisely so that he could hear the acclaim being given to his successor who ranked ahead of him, and whose arrival he had long longed for. John the Baptist knew his place.
Back in the seventies, a brave, or maybe foolish, Russian comedian once raised a laugh by appearing on stage with his jacket plastered with medals, back and front. It was a subversive send up of President Brezhnev who made himself a Hero of the Soviet Union four times over, and awarded himself six Orders of Lenin. John the Baptist had no such desire to plaster his camel coat with self-awarded decorations. He may have stood out from the crowd on account of his eccentric life-style, dress, and diet, but John never set out to say, “look at me”. He pointed instead to the one who came after, yet ahead, of him.
Although we might hesitate to liken ourselves to any of the saints, it’s easier to identify with some of them than with others. Say, with Peter who denied, or with Thomas who doubted. But with John the Baptist there seems to be no obvious affinity for most of us. But it’s always seemed to me that John’s value for us, in terms of example, lies in his perception of himself, summed up by Ronnie Corbett’s, “l know my place”.
But there’s a bit more to it than that. Pint sized Ronnie Corbett knew his place in relation to middle sized Ronnie Barker and giant sized John Cleese. But John the Baptist knew his place in relation to Jesus. And if you had to come up with a definition of a Christian, you could do a lot worse than, “someone who knows their place in relation to Jesus”. In a week when fringe extremists execute innocent people in the supposed name of religion, what better time to remember our place in relation to Jesus.
To know your place in relation to Jesus involves arriving at a realistic self-perception, neither parading yourself on a pinnacle nor plonking yourself at the bottom of the pile. Never to award yourself a medal makes as much a mockery of your God-given dignity as to award yourself a jacketful. Never to listen to the applause which you rightly deserve is to be as defiantly deaf as not listening to the applause given to others. Yes, John the Baptist knew his place in relation to Jesus, but Jesus himself indicated that that place was not a humiliating one. Jesus said of his cousin baptiser, “I tell you, among those born of women, none is greater than John the Baptist”.
So that settles it, then. In reverse order, it’s Ronnie Corbett, Ronnie Barker, John Cleese, John Baptist.