SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST
Fr Dimitri Cozby
The halo of sainthood sometimes blinds us to the extraordinary character of some of the saints. Our reverence for God’s holy ones leads us to overlook how remarkable, even bizarre, their lives were. Certainly that is the case with a figure we honor twice during the summer months, Saint John the Baptist. We celebrate his nativity on June 24th and commemorate his beheading on August 29th.
Saint John was born to a privileged place among the Chosen People. As son of a priest, he too was destined for the priesthood, since priestly service among the Jews was hereditary. His family was not of the religious aristocracy, the priestly clans residing in Jerusalem, but certainly they were among the elite of his native town. Yet circumstances of his conception and birth marked him out for something less exalted in worldly terms, but more important in spiritual terms. He is one of many examples in Scripture of a child born in miraculous circumstances to elderly parents, one granted by God as a special gift to them and marked out for a special place in mankind’s spiritual history. God intended Him for a unique role, to be “the Forerunner” who would announce to Israel and the world the coming of the incarnate Son.
To fulfill this vocation Saint John repudiated the worldly privilege to which he was born. He abandoned the priesthood for the higher role of prophet and forerunner, “the voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord …’” (Isaiah 40: 3, Mark 1: 3). He spent his career literally in the wilderness, in the Judean desert, one of the earth’s most desolate wastelands. He was also in the wilderness figuratively, cut off from human society and from ordinary life by the intensity of his vision, by the consuming nature of his call, and by the totality of his commitment. He wore animal skins reminiscent of those assumed in shame by Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden. He ate only the food available in the desert, meager in quantity and disgusting in quality. Yet there he thrived, and his message thundered out clear and true. Like his Master, he had “bread to eat of which you do not know … to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4: 32, 34).
Saint John’s message was as uncompromising and austere as his way of life. He preached reconciliation with God and with others, as the prophet Malachi bad foretold: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers … “ (4: 5 – 6). Yet he expressed that message in a harsh and uncompromising way. He demanded a baptism of repentance, an outward washing which would attest to an inner commitment to a new relationship with God. For John, repentance was a sham unless it was manifest in active repudiation of past sins and the wholehearted adoption of a new way of life. He cried, “Bear fruits that befit repentance … ,” and he confronted the people with their sins and, worse, with their willing complicity in their sinfulness (Luke 3: 8 – 14). He challenged them to abandon complacency and self-righteousness and to embrace their coming Lord in cleansing repentance and healing forgiveness. He threatened them with the consequences of ignoring this demand: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and Thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3: 10).
Saint John began his role of prophet and teacher long before he entered the desert. Even in the womb he was God’s voice announcing the Savior’s approach, when his mother Elizabeth was visited by her kinswoman, the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mother had just received the visitation of an angel and heard the wondrous news that she would bear the Redeemer. Certainly we know this sublime woman’s deep faith and unshakable trust in her Lord. Still, the tidings she has just received must have left her a little frightened and perhaps bewildered. For comfort and support she turns to Elizabeth who is herself now carrying a child whose conception was announced by an angel. As the Virgin approaches, it is Elizabeth’s unborn child, Saint John, who first recognizes her place in salvation and the true identity of her glorious Son. John joyfully dances in his mother’s womb, and from his movements she realizes the uniqueness of this woman and her precious Son. At Saint John’s prompting his mother greets the Theotokos with the first confirmation of the angel’s message: “Why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1: 43).
Saint John first prophesies through the inarticulate contortions of an unborn child, silently, yet profoundly witnessing to Christ. His last message for us, his death, is also without words. The starkness of the Forerunner’s proclamation led to his death. His criticism of the king and queen’s immorality earn him their fear and hatred, and they procure his arrest. At the end again, we hear no word from him. We read only of his death brought about by the perverted lust and cowardice of a king, the spite of his queen, and the willingness to be exploited of her daughter. John’s death is a testimony to the sinfulness of the world and to the only response the righteous man can make, to stand or fall before its fury, confident of his vindication in God’s Kingdom As the Lord advises, we should not “fear those who kill the body, … Fear him who, after he has killed has power to cast into hell” (Luke 12: 4 – 5).
John lived already in the Kingdom. His death attests to the world’s hatred and ferocity against that Kingdom, but it also affirms evil’s ultimate impotence before Christ. The austerity of John’s life was the inspiration for generations of monastics his death likewise comforted and encouraged the martyrs and confessors who suffered and died for the Gospel down the centuries.
Only once did Saint John seem to waver. During his imprisonment he sent word to Christ, asking “Are you He who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11: 3). In his distress, tortured and facing death, foreshadowing Christ’s own agony in Gethsemane, John sought reassurance from His Lord. We should not discern in this incident a mere moment of weakness; rather we should focus on the strength and depth of faith he displays. None of us can persevere without Christ’s grace and strength, for our righteousness and love are reflections of His. Saint John too needed, for a moment, for Christ to touch his heart and confirm His identity as Lord and God. Even in apparent weakness, however, John never wavered in his certainty that God was reaching down to redeem and save his despairing creatures. He knew God’s love and he knew that this divine love would never abandon him. We too may not always know from what direction the Lord’s help will come or what form His grace will take. But we too can find peace in the certainty of His love and His power to vindicate His chosen ones.
Our Lord certainly did not see John’s question as a sign of weakness. Without hesitation He acclaimed John as “a prophet – and more that a prophet,” as the Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11: 9, 14). And He holds this prophet up as our model: “he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he (John)” (Matthew 11: 11).
John is thus our forerunner too, demonstrating the holiness and honor prepared for all the Lord’s faithful servants. His greatness comes from our Lord, and that same greatness is also our promised inheritance. John’s holiness is the reflected righteousness and glory of the Kingdom, and Christ calls us to be heirs of that same Kingdom. Let us, like John, draw renewed strength and grace from the Lord and fulfill our vocation of preparing this world for His return.