(Martyred 30 AD)
John the Baptist is a familiar figure in Christian lore.
He was born to Zachary, a priest and Elizabeth, a cousin of Mary. It is told that the couple was on in years, pious and virtuous, but Elizabeth was barren, much to their disappointment.
One day, when Zachary was about to offer incense in the temple, an angel appeared to him and frightened the priest. But the angel said to not be afraid and went on to say that Elizabeth would bear him a son who would be great in the eyes of the Lord even before his birth into the world.
In fact, the well-known bible story tells how when Mary went to announce her pregnancy to her cousin, the baby leapt in Elizabeth’s womb in recognition of the divinity of Mary’s child.
On the eight day after his birth, at his circumcision, John was given his name. In Hebrew, Jehohanan, which means “Yahweh hath mercy.”
St. Luke tells us that John “grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts, until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (1:80). We only know from scriptures that John lived in the desert for 30 years before he shows up in civilization as an emaciated, camel-hair shirt-wearing preacher of the coming of the day of reckoning.
Drawn first, perhaps by his oddness and later by his zeal, people began to follow and admire him. He won no fans among the Pharisees and Sadducees, however. John saw through their hypocrisy and pride, calling them a “brood of vipers.”
John preached a message of compassion, admonishing the more prosperous of his listeners, he said, “He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner” (Luke 3:11).
He warned people of authority to do no violence to others nor falsely accuse others (3:14). He insisted that the government not tax the people more than that stipulated by the law (Luke 3:13). His practice of baptism was his way of symbolically purifying the body of his followers. He made no claims to free them from sin, a job left to Divine justice. “I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16, 17)
Jesus went to hear his cousin speak and when he went before him to be baptized, John uttered the famous words, “I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?” (Matthew 3:14)
But Jesus reaffirmed his desire for baptism and when he emerged from the waters of the Jordan a voice from heaven spoke saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:15-17).
John came to his grizzly end at the hands of Herod Antipas. Herod had divorced his wife, a daughter of Aretas, King of the Nabathaeans, to marry his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. John denounced the union as contrary to Jewish law, incestuous and adulterous. At first Herod was hesitant in dispatching the prophet because of his immense popularity and for the upheaval his death would cause.
While imprisoned, John was allowed to receive visits from his followers who kept him informed of Jesus’ wondrous works. He sent them to seek out Jesus to ask him if he was the Messiah.
Jesus answered, “Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached: and blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me.” (Luke 7:20-23; Matthew 11:3-6).
Unlike her husband, Herodias never tempered her contempt for John. She got her chance for vengeance when at a state dinner Salome, the daughter of Herodias, enchanted Herod with her dancing. He was so pleased he said the girl could have whatever she wanted. Salome consulted with her mother before making her request. The “prize” was the head of John the Baptist.
John was the harbinger of Jesus. He helped pave the way for Him and was much admired by Him. Jesus said, “Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” (Luke 7:24-28)
Adapted by A.J. Valentini from www.franciscanmedia.org