CNS PHOTO FROM KNA
An icon depicts the birth of John the Baptist with his mother Elizabeth and Mary present. John was filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth.
Too often, John the Baptist gets portrayed as a first-century crank, a fierce guy with shabby clothes and unkempt beard and hair, who lives like a homeless person. We perhaps see him in the same light as a grubby man who, amidst downtown crowds, carries a sign that reads, "The End is Near."
That view of the Baptist may have the wardrobe right, but the message is wrong. If John carried a sign, it would say, "The Beginning is Near" or "The Reign of Sin is Ending."
From before the moment of his birth, John was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of John, "The fire of the Holy Spirit dwells in him and makes him the forerunner of the coming Lord" (n. 718).
When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came into the presence of Elizabeth, pregnant with John, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and John leapt in the womb.
No wonder John was such a striking contrast with the other people of his day! The Spirit led him to feel the dissonance of creation, that something is deeply out of synch with God's intended purpose.
One might say that he saw and felt how original sin has shaken creation and humanity away from their God-given pattern. He saw the need for repentance.
But John also saw that the laborious, intricate path laid out by the Temple priests for those who wanted God's forgiveness was inaccessible to the majority of people. He offered a simpler path for those with repentant hearts - the ritual of baptism by water.
The Baptist made the path straight. He filled in the valleys, levelled the mountains and hills, made the crooked path straight and made the rough places smooth. Because of that, not only an elite, but also "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3.6).
The God he proclaimed was a God of mercy. His advice for the repentant was simple: If you a tax collector, do not take more money than what has been prescribed; if you are a soldier, do not extort money by threats or false accusations.
In other words, you do not have to devote your entire life to fulfilling the minute requirements of the Law. You can live an ordinary life, but must live it with integrity and justice. You can be a holy layperson.
The religious elite of his day did not like this straight path to salvation. The straight path took away their power. Their power was built on the path to salvation being as circuitous and bumpy as one could fathom. So they turned their back on John's baptism and said he was possessed by a demon.
John left the mainstream of society and went into the desert. He was holy, but he could not live in the holy city of Jerusalem. He had to announce the Holy One of God, but he was unable to do it in the supposed centre of holiness.
Jesus described John as "more than a prophet." What was this "something more"? According to the Catechism, John "is the voice of the Consoler who is coming." Just like the Spirit, John bears witness to the light; he points directly to Jesus (n. 719).
To be called "more than a prophet" is quite an accolade. At the very least, he was equal to the prophets.
Like Jeremiah, the Baptist might have said that he has "become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. . . . Within me, there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in and I cannot" (Jeremiah 20.7, 9).
Like Isaiah, the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah. He even was related by birth to the Messiah and had met the man.
A member of the priestly tribe of Levi, John took his priesthood seriously. He not only announced the salvation to be brought by the Messiah, he began to make it real by offering the baptism of repentance. He was the first bus driver on the straight highway through the desert.
John knew his place. He was the forerunner, not the Messiah and he rejected all efforts to proclaim him Messiah. He rejoiced at the Bridegroom's voice when Jesus appeared on the scene. "My joy has been fulfilled," he said. "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3.29-30).
Jesus would offer the Baptism that not only meant repentance, but also fire and the Holy Spirit. It is the fullness of salvation and John knew it.
John was not a fierce man. He had a smile on his face and joy in his heart. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he bore all the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, generosity, humility, forgiveness and much more.
His ministry upset those who wanted religious power, but it paved the path to salvation for the many.