The National Catholic Review
John the Baptist never became a Christian or follower of Jesus; indeed, there are signs of a cult about John even in the 50’s AD, a sign that a number of John’s followers never became followers of Jesus. John’s importance lies in the fact that, for all four Gospels, the reality of God’s intervention into Jewish history began with John; it culminated in Jesus. This divine intervention, longed for by Jews for centuries (especially after the return from Babylon), is expressed by Mark’s combined quotation from Malachi and Isaiah: God now will send ’My messenger’, whom Mark understands to be John, before ’you’, who is Jesus. Further, this ’messenger’ has the task to prepare the Lord’s way, to make straight his paths. The ’Lord’ can certainly mean God, as He comes now to visit His people, but, given that the title ’Lord’ has been applied to Jesus for over 30 years in Christian worship, Mark can equally call Jesus ’Lord’. With this citation from Malachi and Isaiah Mark intends to define John. First he is to preach repentance, a return to God, culminating in a public act of washing so that one exits from the water to live a new moral life. This preaching is very reminiscent of a major plea from prophets running throughout the Jewish Scriptures: return to Me, O My people! In this John is very much the prophet, now to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Second, John, ’messenger before you’, goes ahead of Jesus. He not only calls for change of morals, but also announces the imminent presence of one whose servant John is not worthy to be. Another way of distinguishing John from Jesus is that John will cleanse with water; Jesus will cleanse with the Holy Spirit. Few descriptions more aptly separate the effects of Jesus from those of John: both want repentance, but only one gives the Spirit of holiness. It is at this juncture that we are reminded that it is God who gives His Spirit; yet, the Gospel of Mark trumpets the belief that it is Jesus who will do this – a reminder to us of Mark’s first verse: ’Jesus...Son of God’. The value of John lies not only in that he makes sense of what God had said through Malachi and Isaiah. His value lies also in the fact that he is a most trustworthy witness to Jesus. John was one of the most revered figures of his time, who gave his life because he was honest and truthful before kings. His word, his testimony is invaluable. His very food and clothing give witness that he was interested only in preaching repentance and the coming of One greater than he. John fittingly leads us to Jesus. The testimony of John on behalf of Jesus would go far in silencing objections to Christians from the Jewish quarter, and would focus on the man who will now, in obedience, take center stage in God’s plan for us and call us to repentance, to our own obedience to our Father. John Kilgallen, S.J.

Comments

Anonymous | 9/11/2008 - 8:26pm
In terms of John's diet in Mark 1:6, it is possible that the Greek words "akridas" (locusts) and "meli agrion" (wild honey) could be translated as or understood to be carob pods (in addition to locusts, "akridas" was also a colloquial term for carob pods) and the vague term "meli agrion" (literally meaning field honey) could have meant edible gum or syrup from trees. Regardless of how these words are interpreted, John either opted for the diet of the poorest of the poor or his food choices were involuntarily ascetic. I served in the U.S. Army and we were instructed, if stranded, lost, or evading capture in a place without access to regular food, to eat insects as a source of protein. Thankfully, I never had to do that. Most of us don't live with hunger or have to forage for wild food as a reality of our daily lives. Also, Mark (if tradition is correct) was written from Rome, chief city of the Empire. In Palestine, Jerusalem was the place of the Temple and the city of greatest importance to Jews. John's ministry and the temptation of Jesus originate in the "eremos" (desert, wasteland, lonely place). The "eremos" in Levitical (Lev. 16:10) tradition was the place where the "(e)scapegoat" was driven for communal atonement (perhaps prefiguring Christ as savior, redeemer). The setting of the "eremos" in Mark subverts the civic primacy of imperial Rome and the old spiritual hub (and Temple) of Jerusalem. This desert, wilderness, outcast setting (for a Messiah) was perhaps shocking to early readers of Mark. I believe it tells us God is doing something new, something very different, something outside of old patterns and expectations. John may not have been a Christian, but he still speaks directly to us at each Latin Rite liturgy, pointing us to Christ in the Eucharist: "Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi." ("This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." John's Gospel quotes John the Baptist in John 1:29).
Anonymous | 9/10/2008 - 1:02pm
I read about John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark this morning. This prompted me to read about John the Baptist in the other three Gospels. All of the Gospels tell us about John. Followers of Jesus learned from John that now was the time. My guess is that some people were amazed by John and some people were afraid of John. All of them undoubtedly saw that John the Baptist was very much alive. I am sure that John grabbed everybody's attention and that everybody listened to him. This was God's intent. John told men and women that now was the time to wake up and now was the time to pay attention. It was time to repent. It was the time for obedience. He told them an extraordinary thing had happened. The Son of God had come to live with them. I think that it is extraordinary that the authors of all the Gospels and their communities knew about John the Baptist and what he proclaimed. Matthew, Mark, Luke actually tell us that the words from Isaiah were about John the Baptist. Undoubtedly they also knew that proclamation from Isaiah that tells us, "Here is your God!" For me in the past, John the Baptist was often that figure who appeared quickly in the Gospels and them made a quick exit. Now I hear him in a much bigger way. I guess we all respond differently to John. Today I hear an echoing: Now! Now! Now!