It is easy to imagine St. John the Baptist in the typical Hollywood way: an angry preacher ranting in the desert. That is the idea many people have of him until what is said about him in Scripture is studied in detail. The portrait of this prophet that we find in the bible is most surprising, and in fact, very impressive.
St. Mark (1:5) as well as Matthew (3:5) state that he attracted those from “all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem” went out to him to confess their sins and be baptized by him in the Jordan River. Would an irascible person appeal to such crowds? Tempestuous personalities are usually avoided. Yet, he was able to convert the military, prostitutes and the unpopular tax collectors (Matthew 21:32; Luke 2:12-14). That is a tough congregation to try to convince of sin, but he was successful in doing just that.
Therefore, instead of repelling people by his message and manner, he attracted them. What could it have been that inspired such a ministry?
Let us now investigate his scriptural image to discover his main characteristics. The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, has clear prophecies about three people: the Messiah, his mother and his forerunner, that is, Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. In particular, it is in the Book of Isaiah 40:3 that we hear about “the voice crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord …,” quoted by Matthew 3:3. The Book of Malachi 5:4 ends with this expectation: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet…”
It was our Lord himself who affirmed that John was the fulfillment of that divine promise (Matthew 11:7-15).
Most of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke is dedicated to the unusual circumstances of St. John the Baptist’s birth. First, there was an announcement made of his coming. His father, the priest Zechariah, was the chosen celebrant of the afternoon incense service in the temple when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and delivered the message about the conception and birth of John.
The archangel give a glowing description of John’s mission: “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great before the Lord … and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
At the most solemn moment of the annunciation of the incarnation to Mary, the same archangel included information about John’s conception. Mary immediately went from Nazareth in northern Galilee to the home of Zechariah in southern Judea.
John’s mother, Elizabeth, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, declared to Mary, “At the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy!” (Luke 1: 41, 44). This has been interpreted to mean the fulfillment of Gabriel’s prophecy about John being filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, his baptism.
On the occasion of his circumcision eight days after his birth, he was given his name John (Jehonanan). The fact that his divinely chosen name was presented by the archangel even before conception indicates his special vocation in the plan of God. “John” means “God is merciful.” At this time Zechariah gave an inspired blessing praising God’s mercy and the role his son would have “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins … to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Luke (1:80) describes John’s early years very simply: “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” The tone of this declaration indicates the appearance on the scene of someone with an extraordinary spiritual vocation.
All four evangelists begin the public period of Christ’s life with the preaching of St. John the Baptist. Therefore his presence is essential to the Gospel, to the point that the fourth Gospel includes him in the Prologue on the Word. When Jesus begins his ministry of preaching and healing, John says something very revealing: “Now my joy is complete” (John 3:29).
We see that the joy that John experienced at his first meeting with Christ while they were both still in the wombs of their mothers has now become perfected. And the mercy of God, which Zechariah praised at his son’s birth, is at the core of John’s preaching of repentance in preparation for baptism.
The fourth Gospel has John proclaiming Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. So joy and mercy are the true characteristics of St. John the Baptist’s spirituality and ministry.
Luke (3:2) tells us “the word of God came to John … in the wilderness” and John himself says that “he who sent me to baptize with water” (John 1:33) informed him about the Messiah. This is the key to his joy: The promised king was coming. His mind and heart must have been brimming over with joyful hope for the arrival of the long-awaited Royal Bearer of the Divine Spirit (Mark 1:8).
John directed his just anger at those who refused and obstructed this joyful proclamation of divine mercy and hope. Repentant hearts were eager for his message and accepted it. His directives were simple: repent and bring forth fruits worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8). He encouraged them to pray and to fast (Luke 5:33). But that was only in preparation for Christ’s wedding feast, as described by John in the fourth Gospel 3:29.
This feast is celebrated liturgically in the Eucharist, as is evident in the Common for Virgins. The prayers for the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist (June 24) features these themes. The prayer after communion for the Vigil Mass requests: “May the prayers of St. John the Baptist lead us to the Lamb of God. May this Eucharist bring us the mercy of God.” The opening prayer for the Mass during the day asks: “Give your Church joy in spirit …” The prayer after communion for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (May 31) petitions: “May we always recognize with joy the presence of Christ in the Eucharist we celebrate, as John the Baptist hailed the presence of our Savior in the womb of Mary.”
John joyfully acknowledged the incarnate presence of Christ in the womb of Mary as we in turn faithfully proclaim the paschal presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Theologians point out that when spiritual joy floods the soul, it usually results in the hope of union with the loved one. The liturgy for Thursday of the second week of Easter prays that the Paschal Mystery we celebrate in the Eucharist be effective throughout our lives. The prayer over the gifts for the Vigil Mass of St. John the Baptist echoes that theme: “help us to put into action the mystery we celebrate in this sacrament.” A joyful hope indicates its realization in us.
The perpetual relevance of St. John the Baptist is indicated in that prayer for the visitation which emphasizes the constant joy we are to have because of the paschal Lamb of God sacramentally present in the mystery of faith. And John’s constant mission is to prepare us a worthy reception of and communion with Jesus, the church’s Royal Bridegroom.