St. John the Baptist: Innocence and Penitence
“Among those born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” —Matt. 11:11
“The time is near! Are you ready to welcome the Saviour?” The voice was loud and clear, carrying over the water to the crowd along the shore. “How can you serve both God and the devil? Repent! Come out into the river and be washed clean of your sins.”
Many men and women had been standing on the bank of the Jordan River all day. They had never heard a man speak like this. Surely this man, John, son of Zachary, was a prophet. He was like the ancient prophet Elias who called the Jews to return to the worship of the true God. Now his call to them was personal. The more devout rose up and waded into the water; the less devout, inspired by this good example, followed after. With tears and cries they made public confession of their sins. John walked among them, washing them with the river water.
At sunset the crowds went home. Some of them had to walk for hours, but they did so with joy in their hearts. They told their friends about their experience, and new crowds gathered on the next morning. A small group of young men stayed with John. They were so enthusiastic that they wanted to share the preacher’s life. It was a rough life, with little food or shelter. John lived in a cave or slept under the stars. He ate what he found in the wilderness, even insects (with a bit of honey they were palatable). Two of the most faithful disciples were Andrew and his cousin John. As a distinction, the master was called John the Baptist, even though the disciples began to help him baptize (i.e. wash the crowds).
Not everyone was inspired by the Baptist. The priests and Pharisees from Jerusalem whispered that he was a fraud. The public confessions were a scandal. Sins should be told in private to the priests, and then a sacrifice should be offered in the Temple. That was the Law of Moses. Baptism had no legal value. These criticisms were whispered, but when the boldest Pharisees went out to confront John, they found no strength to speak. Instead, they were publicly insulted: John called them vipers and rotten trees that would be cut down and thrown into the fire!
A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
The crowds cheered! It was well known that the priests were not pious, and the Pharisees were an arrogant bunch. The rumor started that John the Baptist was himself the Saviour. As John and his disciples baptized, they were forming an army of zealots. Soon he would have enough followers to start a rebellion. God would bless the upright Jews with victory and the Scriptures would be fulfilled with the Messias reigning from sea to sea.
John did his best to put a stop to such ideas. He told the crowds that he was not the Messias. He was only a voice, crying in the wilderness, preparing a way for the great man who would soon come. In private, he told his close disciples the story of his life. His parents, Zachary and Elizabeth, had long prayed for a child. At last, in their old age, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zachary in the Temple and foretold the birth of a son, whom he would name John. The miracles associated with John’s birth were known to the old farmers of the hill country of Judea. Zachary had doubted the angel, and so he had been struck dumb. He could not speak until the eighth day after his son’s birth, when he wrote on a tablet that the child would be named John. The first words out of Zachary’s mouth were the praises of God and a prophecy about the child: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel….And you, my child will be known for a prophet of the most High, going before the Lord….You will make known to His people the salvation that is to release them from their sins.” The elderly parents had lived long enough to teach their son about his mission. When they died, John had gone off into the desert, to pray and do penance for the sins of his people.
John the Baptist probably did not explain the whole story. He had met the Messias, once, before he was born. The pregnant Mother of God had come to visit his pregnant mother, and John had leaped for joy in his mother’s womb. At that moment he had been purified from Original Sin and received the special grace to avoid sin all his life.
Now John lived in hope. The Saviour was alive, somewhere among these crowds that did not know Him. The mission of the Baptist was clear. He was preparing a way for grace to enter the souls of men, so that they would welcome the Messias when He appeared. Every day John’s eyes searched the crowds, seeking for the promised One.
When Jesus approached, He was not immediately recognized. He stood among the crowds and waited until the end of the day. At last, when John was alone, Jesus went up to him and asked for Baptism. Somehow John knew this was the One. He knelt in the river in front of Jesus and said: “No, Lord, I ought to be baptized by Thee.” Jesus answered him: “Those who are clean do not need to wash. We have no sins to confess, but let us do this My way.” So John poured the water on the head of Jesus, and Jesus sanctified the water for use in a more perfect kind of Baptism.
As Jesus stood up, the heavens opened, and John saw a dove coming down from the sky. Above his head a great voice spoke: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” John bowed low before this manifestation of the Trinity. When he arose, Jesus was far away, walking not towards the city, but out into the desert.
It was forty days later when Jesus returned. John had waited near the same bend in the river all this time. He had no reason to visit other regions. He knew that his most important work was to send the people to Christ. Jesus did not speak to the Baptist again, but as Jesus crossed the river, John shouted out to the crowds: “Behold the Lamb of God!” Most people did not recognize Jesus, but when Andrew and his cousin John asked the Baptist, they were told: “Follow Him. He must increase and I must decrease.” Soon after this Jesus also began to preach and to baptize. John tried to send his followers to our Lord.
In those early days, when Jesus was mostly unknown, King Herod came himself to see the wild preacher by the river. Herod thought it might be good fun to listen to the public confessions of his subjects. He brought his courtiers along to laugh with him. But the words of the Baptist did not cause any laughter. John was deadly serious as he climbed up the river bank and accused the King of adultery. The charge was true and everyone knew it, but no one else would say it. John, the last prophet, spoke the words of truth. For that he was arrested and thrown into a dungeon. His death as a martyr soon followed.
Why We Praise the Baptist
Our Lord now became popular. Most of John’s converts accepted Jesus as John’s successor. It was the hard work of our Lord to convince them to accept Him as someone greater. When the disciples of John came to Jesus, He taught them about sanctity in general and the sanctity of John in particular. Sanctity is not only a work of God giving graces, it is also a human work of individual men and women living lives pleasing to God. There are two sorts of holy lives: some are the saints who lived in innocence, hardly, if ever, committing a sin; others, the great majority, I am afraid, have sinned often and grievously. God, in His mercy, has pardoned them and allowed them to return to the state of grace. Thus it is necessary for the great majority to make amends by penance.
John the Baptist possessed both of these qualities. “What went you out into the desert to see? Was it a reed shaken with the wind? Was it a man who sways at the blast of every passion?” No! John was firm against temptations. “What went you out to see? Was it a man clothed in soft garments, such as are found in the houses of kings?” No! John was not wearing fancy clothes. He wore rough camel’s hair, as a penance. “So, was he a prophet?” Yes! More than a prophet! For the other prophets had wives, children, and homes; but here was one whose life was totally given to God. He was more than a prophet, for a prophet’s function was to announce the coming of the Messias from afar; John’s duty was to point a finger at Jesus and say: “There He is! He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”