Saint of the Week: St. John the Baptist

When you think of John the Baptist, what do you imagine?  A wild-eyed prophet?  A bearded man with messy hair clothed in hairy clothes?  John the Baptist is, in some way, the last of the Prophets (although Christ, as God Incarnate, is truly the last prophet (see John White, The Golden Cow on Jesus the Prophet).  He stands in the streets and deserts of Judaea calling all to repentance — soldiers, tax collectors, fishermen, Pharisees, Saduccees, kings, concubines, harlots.

St. John the Baptist is one of the few New Testament saints for whom we actually have a fairly clear portrayal and narrative.  He was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, born to Elizabeth either contrary to her barrenness or after she was past the age of childbearing.

Zacharias was a priest, and John’s birth was prophesied to him by the Angel Gabriel while Zacharias was on duty in the Temple, the angel standing next to the altar of incense.  Zacharias scoffed and was struck mute until John was born, at which point his tongue was loosened and everyone learned the name of the child.

The first thing we know of John the Baptist doing, however, was pre-natal.  When Mary while pregnant with Our Lord went to visit Elizabeth — for Mary and Elizabeth were kin — St. John leapt in his mother’s womb, so happy was he to be near his Lord.

He seems to have been sort of a latter-day Nazirite, for he did not touch strong drink.  He spent the early years of his adult life in solitude in the desert — thus is he a model for the Desert Fathers — before beginning his prophetic and preaching ministry.  In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius’ reign (AD 28-29), John the Baptist began his preaching ministry.  He preached along the Jordan, calling the Jewish people to a baptism — a dunking in the water — of repentance, symbolising the washing of their sins and a recommitment to YHWH, God of the Covenant.  When some Pharisees came to see what the big deal was, he called them a brood of vipers and challenged them, warning them that Another was to follow him Who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

At some point in John’s ministry, that Other came — his kinsman Jesus.  John beheld Jesus and knew Him to be Messiah, and said that it would be more appropriate for Jesus to baptise him, for he was not worthy even to unbuckle Jesus’ sandals.  Jesus told him that it was necessary for Him to be baptised so that all things might be fulfilled.  As Jesus rose out of the Jordan, the Spirit descended upon Him in the shape of a dove, and the Father spoke from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

At some point John also gathered himself some followers.  Among his disciples were Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, and another, who followed Jesus one day after His baptism, when John pointed at Him saying cryptic things such as, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”

John continued his ministry of preaching and baptising.  At some point, as we see in the Gospel According to John, Jesus disciples were also baptising — and baptising more people.  When someone pointed this out to John the Baptist, the Baptist said that this was only proper, for He (Jesus) must increase and John the Baptist decrease.

Later, John the Baptist, like a prophet of old, turned his prophetic voice towards the king, Herod (not “the Great”) who was Tetrarch of Galilee.  He informed King Herod that his having taken Herodias, wife of Philip, as his own, he was violating the Law (the Herods, although of Edomite descent, had converted to Judaism when Rome gave them the kingdom of Judaea to rule).  Herod, not being a King David, threw John in prison for his insolence.

While John was lurking in Herod’s prison, he heard of the many wonderful things Jesus was doing.  And here, the man before whom went the spirit of Elijah, the man who had proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God, the man who had seen the Holy Spirit descend, reached his lowest point.  Wavering in his faith, he sent one of his disciples to inquire if Jesus was the one they were waiting for or not.

Jesus’ reply: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt. 11:5)

I imagine this was enough for John the Baptist in his last days on earth.

One night, King Herod was feasting with his buddies.  Herodias’ daughter (traditionally called Salome) performed a dance for them.  It must have been some dance, for Herod promised to Salome anything she wished, up to half his kingdom.  Herod was probably pretty drunk when he made that promise.  Under Herodias’ advisement, Salome asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Herod didn’t really want to do this, and probably regretted his rash promise, but there were all his drinking buddies.  So Salome got what she wished, and the last prophet died to fulfill the whim of an angry woman.

The lesson?  Oh, the lessons of St. John the Baptist are manifold.  Repent and be baptised.  Be generous.  Fulfill your duties as you should.  If you have two buns, share them.  That’s from his preaching.  From his life — be committed to the cause of Christ.  Yes, things will go bad.  Your faith may even falter, and you may even get killed.  But isn’t it better to die for something True and worth believing than to live for nothing at all?

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