Illustration by Vicki Shuck
The Lectionary readings for the Advent season always include accounts of John the Baptist. If you were playing a game of association, you might be asked, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘John the Baptist’?”
Do you see images of an ascetical man with straggly hair, clothed in skins? Do you hear a stirring call to conversion? Or perhaps you have an instant picture of John baptizing crowds of penitents at the Jordan.
John has, after all, been the subject of such famous artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Donatello, Michelangelo and Titian. So our imaginations have been primed. But what do the four Gospels tell us of John?
Just as each Gospel writer has a unique purpose for writing and favorite themes that are woven through the text, each author portrays John the Baptist in a somewhat different light. Mark focuses on John as the forerunner. In Matthew, John is primarily the preacher of repentance. Luke draws our attention to John as prophet, while John’s Gospel presents him as the witness and herald of Jesus.
Each of these images offers the reader particular insights into the role of John the Baptist. At the same time these varied portraits present the reader with key questions for reflection upon one’s own life.
Mark’s Gospel, having no Infancy Narrative, begins with the preaching of John the Baptist. Before even mentioning John’s name, however, the author cites a quotation which evokes the Prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths’” (2:3). In this quotation, Mark actually combines three texts in order to set the scene for the ministry of John. He establishes the note of expectation by referring to a messenger who would prepare the way (Malachi 3:1; Exodus 23:20). This forerunner would cry out—in the desert—the need to prepare a way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3).
When John is introduced, it is as the fulfillment of these prophecies. John will be the new forerunner. He will prepare the way for Jesus.
The first thing Mark says of John is that he appeared in the wilderness, that is, in an uninhabited place. In addition to describing the land near the southern part of the Jordan River, the word wilderness has rich biblical connotations.
The Sinai wilderness was the place in which God encountered the Israelite community and formed a covenant with them. In the prophets, the wilderness was also the place of covenant renewal: “I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16).
John’s appearance in the wilderness is, in part, a reminder of God’s gracious presence even in the desert, even when the people had felt alone and helpless. John’s preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sin also points ahead to Jesus’ ministry of mercy and forgiveness.
For the contemporary reader, this wilderness setting poses questions for our reflection: What are the wilderness places in my life, in my community, in the world? Where are the places I sense emptiness? Do I believe that, in these places (loneliness? broken relationships? failure? disillusionment?), there is yet room for grace?
Mark describes, undoubtedly with a touch of hyperbole, a tremendous response to John’s preaching. “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized” (1:5). The author paints the scene of people who are hungry for forgiveness, ready for conversion.
Through his preaching, John prepares the way for Jesus and his ministry. Mark gives no further information about John’s message. He mentions only that John points ahead to one who is coming, one who is mightier.
The experience of someone who “prepares the way” is not foreign to us. Just recently, I was talking with someone who described a new and significant opening to God in her life. She commented that she found herself so grateful for all the people in her life (mentors, pastors, spiritual directors, significant friends) who helped prepare her for this moment of revelation, this opportunity of grace.
Perhaps one more way for us to appreciate Mark’s portrait of John the Baptist is to ask ourselves, Who has helped prepare the way for me to recognize the coming of the Lord, the moments of grace, in my life?
With Matthew’s Gospel, John is the preacher of repentance. Here the author includes the content of John’s exhortation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (3:2).
The message is twofold. There is a call to repentance, a word that means “to turn around, to change one’s mind and heart.” To repent is not just a matter of expressing sorrow for something. It is to have an entirely new orientation. The second part of John’s message is his proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is near.
Repentance, then, is a response to this nearness. True repentance or turning is always a turning toward the goodness of God, the nearness of God’s grace. It is this turning toward the presence of God that enables one to turn away from wrongdoing. Here Matthew, like Mark, depicts John as a dynamic and influential preacher of true repentance. “At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins” (3:5-6).
John makes it clear that baptism is no empty ritual. His baptism signifies a genuine turning in a person’s life expressed in action. In Matthew, there is a confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees when John sees them coming to his baptism.
Throughout this Gospel, these Jewish leaders are depicted as those who reject Jesus. Already with the appearance of John the Baptist, Matthew points toward this opposition. His words to them remain a potent challenge to contemporary readers: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (3:8). In other words, they must “Give some indication in your lives that your repentance is sincere.”
Genuine conversion or change of heart is always manifest in how one lives. Later in this Gospel, Jesus also uses the imagery of producing good fruit: “By their fruits you will know them” (7:20).
Matthew’s depiction of John the Baptist encourages us to hear anew his twofold message. We might ask ourselves: Where and how are we aware of the nearness of God’s grace? Secondly, how do we turn toward it? Do we experience a change of heart, a reorientation of our values and decisions when we notice God’s presence? What fruits have been produced?
Such reflection can help us to become more keenly aware of grace and of the process of conversion subtly at work in us.
Those of us who enjoy tending plants or gardens know what it is like to wonder if this flower or that plant will actually blossom or bear fruit. Then one day we are delightfully surprised to find tomatoes on our plants or buds on the Christmas cactus. Similarly, we might discover that, if we look closely, there are signs of new fruit in our lives, or at least the inner nudges to bear fruit in a new way.
In Luke, John the Baptist is introduced even before he is born. Three scenes in the Infancy Narrative give attention to John’s role. In the Annunciation scene with Zechariah, the angel appears to him, promising a son. His words to Zechariah outline the prophetic role of John. “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:15-17).
At the Visitation, when Mary approaches Elizabeth, Luke describes the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaping for joy, already responding to the presence of Jesus.
Finally, on the day John is circumcised and named, Zechariah himself is filled with the Spirit and prophesies. In his canticle, he addresses his son, “You, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (1:76).
When John is to begin his preaching, Luke uses an expression that is often employed in the Old Testament to emphasize the fact that prophets were moved by God and spoke under God’s influence: “The word of God came to John” (3:2). As in Matthew’s Gospel, John preaches repentance and urges the crowds to produce good fruits. Luke, however, expands upon John’s teaching. The crowds ask what they should do.
John’s response puts him squarely in the tradition of the prophets. He urges them not to do extraordinary feats of fasting, but to have compassion for the poor and to deal justly with their neighbors. They are to share their food and clothing. When specific groups of people raise the same question, his answers are direct and practical.
Tax collectors are told, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed” (3:13). Soldiers are advised, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages” (3:14). John even dares to speak the truth to Herod, censuring him for marrying his brother’s wife and for all the evil deeds he has committed. Like prophets before him, John suffers imprisonment and death because of his courageous message of truth.
Reflecting upon John as prophet, we might ask ourselves: When are we aware of the Spirit’s power within us? Perhaps imagining ourselves in a prophetic role seems overwhelming for many of us, but with John, we are asked to recognize those moments when the word of God comes to us in a particular way. What do we do with those nudges, those wake-up calls? In what situations do we speak out or act on behalf of the poor or those who suffer injustice? Whose words and/or example are prophetic for us, urging us to become aware of those things that are within our power to do?
I recently received a note from a friend who knitted her prayers and concern for someone who was chronically ill into a shawl and sent it to her. A few of her friends observed the prayerful knitting and realized that this was something they could also do. The next thing she knew, she was speaking to a group of 40 women who were interested in learning how to become involved in this type of outreach.
We probably all know of individuals whose example has somehow motivated others to visit nursing homes, work in soup kitchens or volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Perhaps you’ve done a little prophetic nudging yourself!
The Gospel of John the Evangelist is particularly focused on John the Baptist as witness. In the Prologue of this Gospel, Jesus is understood as the preexistent Word “in the beginning with God” (1:2). He is also described as the light that shines in the darkness.
The role of John the Baptist is seen specifically in relation to Jesus: “He came for testimony, to testify to the light” (1:7). John is the herald, the one who gives witness to Jesus.
In each of the Gospels, John the Baptist is portrayed as secondary to Jesus. Jesus is stronger; Jesus is the one whose sandal John is not worthy to untie. Here the evangelist could not be clearer: “He [John the Baptist] was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (1:8).
In this Gospel, John is consistently seen as pointing away from himself and testifying to Jesus. The Prologue summarizes his ministry: “John testified to him [Jesus] and cried out, saying, ‘This was he of whom I said, “The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me”’” (1:15). Three separate scenes illustrate this truth.
In the first narrative, priests and Levites directly ask John who he is. He asserts that he is neither the Messiah nor Elijah. Rather, quoting Isaiah, he identifies himself as the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (40:3).
The next day, when he sees Jesus coming, he uses that voice, crying out, “Behold, the Lamb of God....He is the one of whom I said...” John then says that he came baptizing “that he [Jesus] might be made known” (1:29-31). He recounts the story of Jesus’ baptism as the moment in which Jesus’ identity was revealed to him: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (1:34).
In a third scene, John directly points two of his own disciples toward Jesus. Seeing him walk by, John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God” (1:36). His disciples accept his testimony and turn to follow Jesus.
In the fourth Gospel, Jesus gives special tribute to John’s role as witness. When his opponents seek some basis for believing in him, Jesus reminds the people that they themselves sent emissaries to John, and “the testimony he gives on my behalf is true” (5:32).
Jesus declares that John was “a burning and shining lamp” (5:35). This image invites us to reflect upon the nature of our own lives in relation to Jesus. Is our faith, our spirit, a lively witness to others? Does our presence point others to Jesus?
Another Era, Another Herald
One person in particular in our Christian history seems to have understood his role as a herald or witness in the manner of John the Baptist. That person is Francis of Assisi. Early biographers note that Francis was baptized John, after John the Baptist, and that he solemnly celebrated John’s feast day.
One story of Francis recounts that, when robbers asked him who he was, he replied, “I am the herald of the great King.” Since Francis found inspiration in John the Baptist, it might be worth our while during the Advent season to allow John’s words and life to spark something new in us.
Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F., is a Franciscan Sister of Oldenburg, Indiana, a frequent contributor to Homily Helps (both Sunday and Weekday), published by St. Anthony Messenger Press, and currently a spiritual director and retreat leader.