"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

St. John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist and Lamb of God

Born: Late 1st Century BC (Judea)

Died: AD 31-36

Canonized: Pre-Congregation

Proclaimed Doctor of the Church: 1720, by Pope Clement XI

Feast Day: June 24 (Birth) and August 29th (Beheading)

Attributes: Camel-skin robe, cross, lamb, scroll with words “Ecce Agnus Dei”, platter with own head, pouring water from hands or scallop shell

 

Prophecy spoken 500 years before the birth of Christ: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:1)

Just who was this man of whom the Son of God said: “Among those born of women, there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 )? What would inspire the Word made flesh to say something like that? I mean, we all know how some people are born with natural gifts and talents that seem to be interwoven within their genetic code. Take Mozart for example – he was born with music already playing in his soul. Then what about Michelangelo? One might say that he was graced with a third eye – the ability to see the presence of a winged angel or a weeping mother hidden inside a chunk of cold marble. The difference between John the Baptist and every other human being that has ever walked this earth is that the gift of John was not to be found in what he did; rather, the gift of John was his very being itself.

No one has ever described Mozart in this way: ‘Mozart the Music’, or said of Michelangelo: ‘Michelangelo the Art’. We say of them, ‘Mozart the Musician’ or ‘Michelangelo the Artist.’ But when it comes to John, we call him John the Baptist and not ‘John the Baptizer’. What we stand to learn from the life and example of John the Baptist is that all of us are called to be great in the eyes of God, and greatness is an attribute that is born not out of doing, but out of being. Being inspired, driven, and living in the Spirit!

Early Life

As with all stories of greatness, John’s was that of a humble beginning. His parents, Zachary and Elizabeth, were well on in years before news came by means of an angel that they were to conceive a child. While years of barrenness weighed heavily upon both of them, they trusted in God wholeheartedly. They “were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame; they had no son for Elizabeth was barren” (Luke 1:6-7). While fulfilling his priestly office offering incense in the temple of the Lord, the angel of the Lord appeared on the right side of the altar with a message from heaven:

Announcement of John’s Birth

“Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people” (Luke 1:8-17).

Zachary doubted the prophetic words of the angel and thus suffered by means of being stricken with the inability to speak until the promise was fulfilled. While we know not the exact date of his birth, the Gospels suggest that John was born six months ahead of Jesus. Therefore, on a liturgical level, the Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist on the 24th of June – six months prior to celebrating the birth of our Saviour.

The Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79)

The day of John’s birth marked the day of his father’s ability to speak once again. Zachary expressed his joy by means of stringing together a Canticle of Praise that reveals the Spirit’s work long before John ever appeared on the public scene:

“…You my child shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).

The Hidden Years Give Way to the ‘Dawn From on High’

From there, we enter a time of unknowing much like our Lord’s 30 years of silence. Scripture scholars conclude that prior to beginning his public ministry, “up to this, [John] had led in the desert the life of an anchorite; now he comes forth to deliver his message to the world. ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching'” (Luke 3:1-3). [1]

“I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

With the Holy Spirit powerfully at work through the being of John, people from all over Judea were drawn to his magnetic personality, the power of his words, the boldness of his teachings, and the hope that he inspired within the hearts of many concerning a new time to come – the time of the immediate ushering in of the Kingdom of Heaven! “For the simple folk, he was truly a prophet (Matthew 11:9; cf. Luke 1:76, 77). … “Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), such was the burden of his teaching. Men of all conditions flocked round him.”[2]

To illuminate the way of righteousness, John gave those who had gathered around him practical means through which they might prepare themselves for He who was to come. “He that has two coats, let him give to him that has none. Anyone who has something to eat, let him do the same. Some were publicans; on them he enjoined not to exact more than the rate of taxes fixed by law. To the soldiers he recommended not to do violence to any man, nor falsely to denounce anyone, and to be content with their pay” (Luke 3:11-14).

The Symbol of Repentance: John’s Baptism

Those who took his message to heart, he baptized in the River Jordan. “He served as the forerunner or herald of the Messiah and was to prepare for him by fulfilling an Elijah-like role by calling the nation to repentance.”[3]

St. Thomas Aquinas has this to say concerning John’s baptism: “John’s baptism was good, not so much to free one from certain sins as to purify the body, the soul being already cleansed from its defilements by justice.”[4]  In short, John’s baptism is not the same as the baptism we’ve received in Christ. John’s baptism was a baptism that symbolized a person’s inner desire to turn away from their old ways of life. He inspired people to repent from sin, change their hearts, and begin a journey of personal conversion. To understand what John’s baptism offered to those who came to him, think of a child being formed in the womb of his or her mother. A baby moving and kicking in the womb is like the expression of what was bubbling up inside the hearts of all who came to John in order to be baptized. Men’s and women’s hearts ‘moving and kicking’ within them, longing for the fresh air of repentance! Longing to be forgiven for their sins.

Baptized on behalf of the Human Race

And so the question becomes this. Seeing as Jesus was the Son of God who never committed any sins, why was He in need of being baptized by John? Scripture writes, “John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented” (Matthew 3:14-15). It was not for his own personal good that Jesus received baptism at the hands of John. Rather, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism because at that very moment, Christ represented all of humanity engulfed in sin. As St. Paul reminds us in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As John so beautifully expresses before his disciples upon seeing Jesus: “Behold, there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world! (John 2:29)”

The Symbol of Regeneration: Christ’s Baptism

Meanwhile, the baptism we share in through Christ’s great commission prior to ascending back to the Father – “Go out to all the world and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) – is a baptism that brings about the forgiveness of all sins: “original sin and all personal sins, as well as punishment for sin. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin, nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God.”[5]

Baptized in Christ is to be born again of Water and Spirit

As I mentioned earlier, a heart’s ‘repentant disposition’ before God is like a child being formed in the womb; it’s a necessary step along the journey of being born into this world. In other words, while John’s baptism did help people heal their relationship with God, in no way can it be compared to the baptism we experience in Christ. For just as a child being born into this world suddenly cries, breathes, and begins to live on his or her own, likewise, we who have passed through the waters of baptism have passed from the old order of life – the way of disobedience and original sin – into the experience of having been ‘born again’ in this world. Baptism in Christ is the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise: “Truly I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven without being born of water and the spirit” (John 3:5).

Mission Accomplished

Nearly 3000 years ago, God made the following promise: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth… So will my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). John prepared the way of the Saviour exactly in the manner that had been willed by his Creator. He even received a kind of internal knowledge concerning how his mission was coming to an end, in that soon after baptizing Jesus, John exclaimed: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Having passed on the torch of witness that illuminates the pathway to heaven with the strength of Elijah’s prophetic presence (Matthew 11:14), John’s earthly journey soon came head-to-head with the forces that operate in this world. His choice to publicly call out Herod Antipas, he who ruled the region of Galilee, landed him in prison. “Herod arrested John, chained him up and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For John had told him, ‘It is against the law for you to have her’ (Matthew 14:3-4).”

John’s earthly days came to an end following a promise made by Herod to the daughter of his brother’s wife (with whom he was now living), in exchange for a dance by which she might entertain his guests during his birthday celebration: “I will give you whatever you ask, up to the half of my kingdom.” (Mark 6:23) After consulting her mother, she asked for the head of the Baptist. As St. John Vianney put it, “His head was the price of a dance!”

The Mosaic of Salvation History

Entomologists who study the life cycle of the monarch butterfly state that every year during the fall season, the annual monarch butterfly migration to Mexico gets underway. Amazingly, by instinct alone, millions of monarchs from all over North America fly nearly 3000 miles to a small handful of sites in Mexico where they rest for the winter. Then, come springtime, they begin the return trip back up north. The most incredible thing is that no individual monarch ever makes the trip to Mexico and back. And yet, year after year, the butterflies end up in the same mountains that their ancestors left the previous spring… Dr. Sue Haplern writes: “The monarchs always migrate in community and depend on each other. Although a single monarch may make it from New York to Mexico, it is the next generation who completes the journey.”

Monarch butterflies cover every inch of a tree in Sierra Chincua.

In the mosaic of Salvation history unfolding through the passage of time, much like the monarch butterflies, no human being completes the journey – fulfills the purpose for which they have been sent by the Creator into this world – alone. It is always within the context of the wider believing community that we discover the fullness of God’s plan for us. John’s life and death serves to remind us that being great in the eyes of God is not about doing great things; it’s about allowing ourselves to become great through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at work in each of our lives. When the gift of our every 24 hours on earth is perceived under this light, we then begin to gain a new appreciation for the puzzle-like story of Salvation that continues to unfold through the passage of time. For Salvation history is a tale that describes in detail how every man and woman and child is a necessary part of what we might call “God’s Mosaic – A Salvation Masterpiece.”

Fr. Jerome Lavigne

 

God’s Mosaic – A Salvation Masterpiece

Footnotes

[1] New Advent Encyclopedia http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08486b.htm.

[2] Cf. Ibid.

[3] Who was John the Baptist? (11 things to know and share) http://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimmy-akin/who-was-john-the-baptist-11-things-to-know-and-share.

[4] Summa III.38.2 and 3.

[5] CCC #1263.

 

 

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