The National Catholic Review
John the Baptist as a model for Christian life today

Works of great beauty by unknown artists are time’s antidotes for today’s celebrity culture. One such work is the Wilton Diptych [opposite page], a small devotional masterpiece from the end of the 14th century that shows St. John the Baptist, on the left inner panel, accompanied by Sts. Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor as they present the kneeling King Richard II to Mary and the Christ Child, depicted on the right inner panel surrounded by 11 angels.

The detail of the diptych is glorious, with wonderful variation in mood between the two sides. Mary and the angels, who are crowned with roses, are clothed in lapis lazuli blue and stand in a meadow of flowers. The Christ Child reaches toward Richard and his intercessors, who are shown on barren land, a forest behind them, a golden sky above. We know their identity exactly through the attributes of the saints and the insignia on the gold collar around the king’s neck. John, holding a lamb, stands out through the sparseness of his clothing and his bare upper body and feet. He stands out in the Advent season as well. (See the Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent.) The Gospel of Mark, in fact, begins by presenting John as the messenger of God, a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord (quoting the prophet Malachi). In six quick verses, Mark introduces John as “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and baptizing Judean throngs in the Jordan. He wears a prophet’s clothing, eats locusts and wild honey and announces someone mightier than he, who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit.

John’s critical role in Mark is to baptize Jesus, who identifies himself with the people and then experiences the revelation of his own identity as the heavens open, the Spirit descends upon him as (like) a dove, and a divine voice proclaims him “my beloved Son” (Mk 1:10-11). John’s arrest is the dramatic moment at which Jesus begins to preach his own good news. (The former foreshadows how the latter will end.) Imprisoned, John is not one of the first disciples Jesus calls. But the fasting of John’s disciples leads to the question of why Jesus and his disciples do not fast and to Jesus’ answer in terms of wedding guests who do not fast while the bridegroom is with them (Mk 2:18-22; also Mt 9:14-17; Lk 5:33-39).

In an extended narrative told as a flashback in Chapter 6, Mark presents a parallel again between the baptist’s death and that of Jesus: the lurid tale of Herod Antipas’ feast at which Salome, the daughter of Herod’s wife, so pleases the foolish king with her dancing that he yields to her demand for the head of John—a theme irresistible to artists through the ages. Paralleling again Jesus’ story, John’s disciples take his body and lay it in a tomb (Mk 6:29).

A Revelatory Voice

After the Infancy Narrative in Matthew’s Gospel (in which there is no mention of John), Chapter 3 opens with a vigorous account of John’s preaching, based largely on Mark. Here the preaching is more assaultive (“you brood of vipers,” he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees) and emphasizes the practical (“bear fruit that befits repentance”). Matthew’s John again emphasizes that the one whose way he prepares is “mightier than I.” He draws back from baptizing Jesus, who responds, “Let it be so for now.” Another variation from Mark is that the revelatory voice from heaven is apparently heard by the attendant crowd as well as Jesus. But the crucial issue is the same: the revelation of Jesus’ identity at the beginning of his ministry. And the artistic representations of John’s preaching are outnumbered only by those of Christ’s baptism, from the Neonian Baptistery in Ravenna to Piero della Francesca and on to John Nava’s tapestry mural in Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles.

In Matthew, John’s arrest leads Jesus to withdraw into Galilee, where his preaching begins. A significant Matthean addition occurs in Chapter 11: Hearing about “the deeds of the Christ” (Mt 11:2), John sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is “the one who is to come”—suggesting uncertainty in the circle of John and his disciples. Jesus responds in terms of what he has done for the blind and the lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor. “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (v. 6), in effect chiding his interlocutors, and John especially, to believe in him. He does go on to proclaim, however, that “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Yet “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (v. 11). After this significant exchange, Matthew’s account of John’s beheading at the hands of Herod (again in flashback, 14:1-12) abbreviates Mark and notes at the end that John’s disciples went to relate the event to Jesus.

Beginning with the elegant literary diptychs on the annunciations and then the births of John and Jesus in the Infancy Narrative (the Gospel in miniature, as the biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown wrote), the Gospel of Luke devotes the fullest attention to the figure of John the Baptist. We learn the names of his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and that the baby John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visits her, foreshadowing the future relationship between John and Jesus (Lk 1:41). In Zechariah’s “Benedictus” we have an extended hymn on John’s role in preparing the way of the Lord (Lk 1:67-79). The family relation between the cousins has been the foundation for lovely extrapolations about the two children together, most often with Mary and/or Joseph, including Desiderio da Settignano’s delicate marble tondo of the two as children and major paintings by Raphael (the Alba Madonna in the National Gallery, Washington) and Michelangelo (“The Holy Family,” in the Uffizi, Florence).

After Zechariah’s hymn, Luke takes John quickly into “the wilderness.” He reappears only in Chapter 3, where his preaching is extensively reported (vv. 3-17), with an emphasis less on asceticism and more on concern for the disadvantaged. (“The multitudes asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’”) The striking summation: thus “he preached good news to the people” (v. 18, using the Greek word for “gospel”). To turn full attention to Jesus, even before reporting his baptism, Luke then reports Herod’s arrest of John. Only later, in three brief verses (Lk 9:7-9), does he tell us that Herod was perplexed by what he heard about Jesus and supposed it could not be John, whom he had beheaded. (No feast is described, and no dance by Salome.) Meanwhile, pausing in his story, Luke had recounted Matthew’s version of disciples (Luke mentions two) sent by John to question Jesus about his identity, Jesus’ response in terms of his saving deeds and then his praise of John as God’s messenger and his own forerunner (Lk 7:18-35). Tellingly, he speaks of both John and himself as children of wisdom (v. 35).

Witness to the Light

In comparison with the three Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John is limited in its portrayal of the Baptist but is in some ways the most profound. Early in the transcendent Prologue, John is introduced as the one who “was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (Jn 1:8). Following the Prologue, 23 verses present John’s testimony as he tells the priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem to question his identity that he is neither the Christ nor the prophet but a voice crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord (quoting Is 40:3). He baptizes with water, but there is someone among the crowds “whose sandal [he is] not worthy to untie” (v. 27). On the next day, seeing Jesus, he proclaims him the Lamb of God and announces that he, John, has seen the Spirit descend upon Jesus. (The image of the Lamb probably derives from a combination of the Suffering Servant and the death of Jesus as that of the Passover Lamb.) Again, on the next day, he points Jesus out as the Lamb of God to two of his disciples, one of whom, Andrew, brings his brother Simon Peter to follow Jesus as well.

In John there is thus no report of Jesus’ baptism, nor will there later be an account of the Baptist’s death. In Chapter 3 the Gospel recounts that John had continued to baptize, “before his imprisonment,” but spoke clearly of himself as the forerunner of Christ as the bridegroom who “must increase, but I must decrease” (v. 30). And in Chapter 5 we hear Jesus speaking of John as “a burning and shining lamp” (v. 35), while appealing to a greater testimony, that of his Father.

John’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God and as the bridegroom (as in the Synoptics) has had great influence iconographically and theologically. He is pictured with the Lamb in countless images—on the North Porch of Chartres, in the Wilton Diptych, and in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, to name a few. As for the metaphor of bridegroom, Cardinal Carlo Martini, asked late in his life whether he preferred to be called “Father” or “Pastor,” replied that he personally preferred two other terms: John the Baptist’s “friend of the Bridegroom” (Jn 3:29-30) and, similarly, St. Paul’s promising the Corinthians “to a single Bridegroom” (2 Cor 11:2) “The point,” the cardinal said, “is to bring people to Christ.”

As John witnessed and prepared the way for Jesus during their earthly existence, he remains for us still a herald from heaven. The lovely legends that grew up around him, especially of his childhood and youth, remain artistically delightful. But they are distractions from the stronger, enduring lessons of the brief life to which the canonical New Testament testifies. His preaching of repentance, return to the true God of Israel and renewed commitment to the care of outcasts and the poor remains vital still, though now transformed by the full good news of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God and realizing it through his own public life and paschal mystery. John’s recognition of God’s full saving presence in Jesus, and his sense of his own lowliness before it, are vital to our own call to discipleship. His baptism was a powerful sign of the repentance he called for, as Christian baptism is the full sign of our shared incorporation in Christ. Not least, the risks John endured, from bloody birth to bloody death, remind us and the entire church what following Christ can cost.

Trying to live these truths, we might well kneel, with Richard II and Sts. Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, beside John, pointing eternally to the Christ Child and his mother, this Advent, Christmas and always, and say as simply as we can: St. John the Baptist, pray for us.

Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

Comments

ROBERT O'CONNELL | 12/9/2012 - 1:36am
Wow: “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” 

This is the best item I can recall reading in America.  It teaches us a lot about a man Jesus held in uniquely high esteem.  It inspires me.  

Thank you Fr. O'Donovan.