"Crying in the Wilderness"
Saint John the Baptist, Forerunner of Christ's Passion
© 2001 by Paul Thigpen
[This excerpt is chapter 2 of my book Blood of the Martyrs, Seed of the Church: Stories of Catholics Who Died for Their Faith (Servant, 2001).]
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
John the Baptist was beheaded and crowned with holy martyrdom. He was not bidden to deny Christ; and yet for confessing Christ he was slain; because the same Lord Jesus Christ had said, "I am the truth"; and because John was slain for the truth, he shed his blood for Christ.
Pope St. Gregory the Great, Epistles, 64
He was suffocating.
Nearly all his life he'd roamed the wild open spaces of the desert, bronzed by the sun, buffeted by the wind, alone and at liberty. But this cramped cell was dark, filthy, crawling with rats, infested with vermin, the foul air thick with the moans and curses and stench of the prisoners. To St. John the Baptist, a feral son of the wilderness, Herod's prison was a coffin.
In the beginning, when John had first fled to the wastes for refuge, as his predecessor, Elijah, had done, the demons loosed on him had attacked in the open: by day, baring their fangs and claws and growling their taunts; by night, purring their temptations as they watched with cold eyes that never blinked. He fled, but they followed; he begged for mercy, but they howled in derision. At last he learned to fling in their faces his fasts and prayers and psalms, slashing them, burning them, and for a time they withdrew into the crevices and caves, licking their wounds and plotting.
In the silence left by their retreat, John could hear clearly at last. There among the rocks the Word of God overtook him.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight! Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
The divine Word was a seed. John had to plant it carefully, in the richest soil of his soul, in the full sunlight of recollection. He had to water it countless days with his tears and dung it with his penance, the stinking refuse of sins forsaken and thus made fertile. In time the seed burst forth to blossom and bear its prickly fruit. He ate it and grew strong. He knew at last who he was, what he was to do, where he was to go, what he was to say.
At the Jordan
Then John whirled like a storm cloud out of the wilderness and thundered down on Judea.
Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand!
He had come of age, and the world had come of age, too. Heaven was done now with waiting. The kingdom of God was a wedding feast, and the world was to be courted. John was to wash her clean, get her ready to court, and in due time he would make the necessary introductions.
He had only to figure out who was the Bridegroom.
Raised on locusts and wild honey, forsaking bread and wine, wrapped in the borrowed skin of a camel, the brother of lizards and mountain goats knew little of niceties. God does not woo with sweet nothings. So John shouted at the Bride his invitation to bathe, and flung the bath water in her face.
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance. …
The people flocked to the Jordan to hear him, but it was a mixed flock: Some settled in like turtledoves on the nest. Some circled like vultures around the victim. Some stood distant and motionless, like storks, watching and waiting. Priests and prostitutes, merchants and tax collectors, soldiers and fishermen. Tears mixed with taunts, repentance with revulsion, faith with fascination — only God himself could sort it all out.
For the most part, the priests and Levites were open, curious; the common people adoring and afraid. What did he demand of them? At first, no more than all the prophets had demanded: justice, mercy, humility before God. The warm and filled should share with the cold and hungry. The powerful should stop exploiting the weak.
The Pharisees and Sadducees, on the other hand, despised him. They were the privileged exceptions to his rules. They were clean, they insisted; cleanliness was their birthright. Abraham was their father.
God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
How dare he speak of fire! The Sadducees denied that hell even existed. The Pharisees presumed that God had created it for everyone but them. After all, they kept the Law. Every tenth leaf of mint and dill they carefully plucked and proudly set aside for God. Yes, of course, in the meantime they devoured the poor and the poor in spirit. But they wiped their mouths and washed their hands when they were done.
Both Sadducee and Pharisee wanted to silence John. Yet they feared the mob, the clueless and accursed mob, who relished the sweet irony of their hypocrisy laid bare. So they waited and plotted. The mob was fickle. The mob would soon find another hero, and John would be dealt with.
Herod, the Romans' puppet who played king in Galilee, wasn't sure what to make of John. More than once he'd ordered his retinue to bear him to the edge of the crowds along the Jordan, near enough to hear but far enough to remain hidden. What he saw and heard first fascinated, then angered, then frightened him.
John was a holy man; that much Herod knew. And for a while, wickedness finds holiness intriguing, studying it with amused perplexity, too crippled to grasp its root, too feeble to taste its fruit. Unable to make sense of such exotic foliage, Herod had soon wearied of the game and began to look around for an axe. But he had to fell the prophet quietly. The mob worshipped this locust-eater; they might turn violent, and the Romans might blame him and find a new puppet.
Herod's wife, Herodias, his own brother's wife, wanted the prophet's head. It was all very well for him to give the crowds a bath — they stank and needed one — and she rather enjoyed hearing those pompous old prigs fume over his insults. But John had gone too far when he had pointed his bony finger through the curtains of the royal bedroom.
It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.
No one could call Herodias an adulteress and live. She screamed at her husband to wash her stained reputation in John's blood, but he was a coward. Why did he cringe before the crowds? She spat on them. They were dogs. She would spin her web and catch the gadfly that was stinging them all. She would have her revenge.
Meanwhile, the demons had returned to John, this time in the tirades of the hypocrites and the cheers of the crowd. "We will destroy you," they hissed. "We will make you our lord!" they cried. At the end of each day, after the last of the baptisms, he had to throw himself into the water to be cleansed again, to drown out their voices.
But all that changed the day the Bridegroom showed up.
In recent weeks John had announced his coming. Whatever rage the prophet had provoked by his rebukes, it was swallowed up by the excitement he stirred when he assured them that the promised Christ, the Anointed One of God, was at hand.
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord!
The crowds demanded daily that he make good his promise. The leaders, both religious and political, took it as a threat. Was he setting himself up to be acclaimed as the Deliverer? Would he turn the throngs into an army? Would he take away the leaders' power and drive them out?
They sent secret messengers to ask him bluntly: "Who are you?" If he called himself the Christ, the Anointed One, they had grounds to move against him: They could accuse him of blasphemy against religion and sedition against Rome. He dashed their hopes.
I am not the Christ.
Was he the prophet Elijah come back from heaven, as the Scriptures had foretold? Was he the great Prophet who Moses had said would come?
No. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
They went away grumbling. He has a demon, they agreed.
Every day he scanned the faces of the crowd, searching for some clue that the Anointed One had come. How would he know when he saw him? How would the Christ reveal himself? Would he come right away in glory before the whole world, or would he come first to John in secret? And if a man came in secret, claiming to be the One, how could such a claim be judged?
Imposters had come and gone, bad actors on a grand stage whose tragic roles had cost men their lives. John had to be certain. If he were wrong, he might wed the people to a devil; he might push them toward damnation. He needed to see the glory, hear the glory, even if it were a secret glory, invisible and inaudible to everyone else. Before he could bear witness to the Anointed One, God himself had to bear witness to the Anointed One.
And so he did. Once again the Word of God overtook the prophet, this time a still, small voice within.
He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
John had never seen the Holy Spirit — could anyone see him? — but faith grew, a swelling confidence that God himself would open his eyes to see things that no other man had ever seen.
He was startled the day his kinsman Jesus came to be baptized. John had known him since childhood; their mothers had been close friends as well as kinfolk. And of all the men he knew, this one alone had no need to wash his soul. He was a righteous man, a perfect man, so perfectly righteous that in his presence John always felt unworthy.
The prophet tried to turn him away. "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?" Jesus, however, was firm.
Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.
So John obeyed, half expecting the river to part in protest. Instead, the water embraced Jesus, clinging to him like an old friend, and as it ran down his face, it seemed all the more pure for having made the journey. The water itself had been cleansed, and John had been cleansed with it.
Suddenly the prophet's eyes and ears were aflame. A blazing white dove descended, burning a bright hole in the heavens as it flew, and it came to rest on Jesus' right shoulder. Then the earth itself seemed to melt in the heat of a fiery voice from the skies — not the thunder that follows the lightning, but rather the lightning itself made audible.
This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased!
The baptism of Spirit and fire had begun.
Only God and the crowd know how long John stood there, possessed by the vision and the voice. When he was himself again — would he ever be himself again? — Jesus had slipped away through the noisy throng, in their eyes just one more penitent. Had no one else seen and heard what John had seen and heard? Still the voice within remained to sear his mind, kindling fires in unexpected places, each flame a torch to illuminate some dark cavern of his soul.
The Lamb of God
When Jesus came to the Jordan again, forty days later, the prophet knew his time had come. Raising his arms, he silenced the crowd. Then he pointed toward Jesus and shouted the words he'd been created to shout.
Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me. I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.
They stood stunned and speechless as he told them of the vision and the voice. This ordinary-looking man? Some from Galilee recognized him: a carpenter and the son of a carpenter. Could anything good come out of Nazareth?
And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.
Where were the attending angels, the hosts armed for battle, the trumpets calling the nation to war? This was John's Christ, John's Anointed One, John's Deliverer? Had the desert sun finally rotted the prophet's mind?
Confused and angry, the crowd began to disperse. Jesus himself went his way without comment. Soon John was left alone with his thoughts and with the few disciples who remained despite their perplexity.
The next day John was sitting silently by the river with two of his disciples when Jesus came walking by. John knew what he had to do. Looking Andrew in the eye, he pointed once more to Jesus and repeated the words of the day before.
Behold, the Lamb of God!
Reluctantly, Andrew understood. His eyes filled, a baptism of grief, and he stood, pulling his fellows up with him. They embraced John one last time, turned, and followed Jesus.
In the days following, John's disciples began trickling to Galilee. He continued to baptize, but when Jesus appeared in Judea, the crowds went his way. John's friends complained; he silenced them with a long stare.
You yourselves bear me witness that I said I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the Bridegroom; the friend of the Bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the Bridegroom's voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.
Not long after, Herod's men showed up to bind him and take him away. Herodias' incessant taunts had finally pressed her husband to make his first move.
Now the daytime darkness of the prison cell was deepening into the blinding blackness of another night. The thought of his followers filled him with grief and dread. Where did they go? Why hadn't he heard from them? Were they safe from Herod? Had doubt and fear consumed them?
For a while the vermin on the walls were the only visitors. But not for long. Now there were vermin in his brain. The demons had returned, crawling inside his head, boring holes in his faith. "Did God really say …?"
Who was he to hear from heaven? Did he really think the King of the Universe would choose him from among all men to announce his kingdom? Were the visions from heaven or the ravings of a maniac? Desperately, he flung out a scroll of memories long furled, searching for words, pictures, anything he could recite to his tormentors to justify his life.
The angelic visitor … yes, the angel. His life had begun with an angel. His father, a blameless old priest, saw the heavenly messenger at the altar, was struck dumb by the apparition. John's birth was prophesied; his aged, barren, righteous mother was promised a son, and God kept his promise.
The angel had said he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from the womb. The angel had said he would be great before the Lord, he would go in the spirit and power of Elijah, he would make ready for the Lord a people prepared. The angel had even named him; the name meant "Gift of God." So began the scandal of his life; the kinfolk were already complaining about his name, wondering how the barren could be made to bear, asking what this child would be.
His father's prophecy at his birth had echoed that of the angel: John would be the prophet of the Most High, the preparer of his ways, the herald of the Dayspring from heaven. Even if he could doubt the angel, could he doubt his godly old father?
Suddenly his frantic thoughts were pierced by the raspy whisper of his name. Through a crevice in the cell wall he could hear the voice faintly, calling from outside. His men! They had stolen past the drunken guards in the moonless blackness.
What About Jesus?
First the queries about their whereabouts, what dangers they faced, what rumors were flying. Then the question that tore at his soul: What about Jesus?
When he'd heard of John's arrest, Jesus had withdrawn into Galilee. The crowds followed him there, and they were multiplying by the hour. The poor and the outcasts especially thrilled to his preaching, but the wealthy and proud as well had begged him to dine in their homes. Lately there were reports of miraculous cures, demons cast out, food mysteriously multiplied, even corpses brought back to life. Greeks and Romans scuffled with Jews for a chance to come close enough to touch him.
The Sadducees and Pharisees hated him. A good sign, thought John.
Yet the doubts chewed away at his confidence. Was the Anointed One coming to cleanse lepers, or to judge the world? Was he coming to bless the peacemakers, or to vanquish the wicked?
Wouldn't the true Christ have torn down the walls of this prison by now?
His disciples posed the same questions before he had the chance to ask them aloud. Were Andrew and the others led astray? Had they all been deceived? What if Jesus were deluded, or worse, a fraud?
They pressed the issue, and at last John faltered. Perhaps he was mistaken. Had Jesus himself ever claimed publicly to be the Christ? If his kinsman would not admit the claim, then all was lost.
So he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask him pointedly: "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
The wait until they returned seemed like a lifetime, though only a day passed; all the years of hope and struggle paraded through his mind. Again his men crept through the darkness and whispered through the cracked wall.
Even as they had stood watching, they reported, Jesus had worked miracles: healings, exorcisms, other wonders. Still they had asked him John's question, and he had replied — gently, without reproach.
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.
It was an answer of sorts, but not as plain as John had hoped for. He thanked his disciples, dismissed them, and prayed for light.
The ancient scroll of Isaiah fell open in his memory, the scroll that had prophesied his own ministry: a voice crying in the wilderness. Other words from the text began to press forward in his mind.
And the Spirit of the Lord will shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord …
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy …
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor …
The age-old words began to rekindle his faith. Isaiah's book was finding its fulfillment. Hadn't the Christ come to heal as well as to judge?
Yet the demons were not so easily silenced. Wasn't it a little suspicious that the man John claimed was the Christ should be his kinsman? Could he truly believe his childhood playmate was the Son of God?
His childhood playmate … odd memories came rushing back, faint recollections of stories he had overheard his mother and father telling relatives when he had been too young to understand or even to ask questions. Reports of prodigies surrounding his kinsman's birth, more remarkable than the events surrounding his own.
The same angel who had visited John's father, so they said, had come to Jesus' mother, again to her husband, had announced his coming, had even named the child, as he had named John. The name meant "God is salvation." Just as John's father had prophesied, so also had Jesus' mother, words about exalting the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.
Jesus' mother. She was so much like her son — no other woman so pure had ever lived. John thought of them both, blessed mother and son, and felt a stirring within. It grew stronger, till he trembled all over, till his heart began to pound, till at last he found himself leaping in the darkness, a sudden explosion of joy lifting him from the floor of the prison cell.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
So also had he once leapt for joy in his mother's womb, even then testifying to the Christ, though of course he had no recollection of it. The same Spirit who had filled him then was filling him once again.
When the guards came for him soon after, he was ready. On the way to the place of execution, they spilled out the whole obscene story.
Herod had thrown himself a birthday party, with Herodias' daughter providing entertainment for his guests with a lewd dance. Herod's lust had been so inflamed by his own niece that he'd made a rash oath, in the presence of the revelers, that he'd grant her anything she asked.
Herodias had wasted no time. She'd prompted her daughter to call for John's head, served on a silver platter, as the last course of the birthday feast. Herod had whined; Herod had pouted; Herod had professed to be sorry — not with remorse for his wickedness, but with regret that he'd been tricked into risking a riot.
Yet his vanity demanded that he keep up the appearance of integrity before his guests. After all, he had sworn an oath. So he gave the command, and it was done. John's disciples came and took the body, to bury it in the wilderness he loved.
John was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.
When the Bridegroom heard that his friend was dead, he got in his boat, left the crowds, and went to be alone.
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