The Man Who Bridges the Old and New Testaments
St. John the Baptist is fascinating person because he provides a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He is the last of the prophets, and the greatest of the prophets. How else is he connected to the Old Testament?
First, like other figures from the Old Testament, St. John was a "miracle" baby who was born to his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were considered to be too old to have children. The birth of St. John the Baptist reminds us of the patriarch Isaac who was born to Abraham and Sarah and the prophet and priest Samuel who was born to Elkanah and Hannah.
Both Isaac and Samuel were born to mothers who naturally speaking were not able to bear children. God intervened and allowed Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist to be born. Surely, the Lord had a special plan for John the Baptist.
The Son of a Levite
John, like Samuel, was a Levite. He was a member of the priestly tribe of Israel. The members of the tribe of Levi were responsible for temple worship. And indeed, it is when his father Zechariah was offering incense in the temple in Jerusalem that the angel Gabriel announced to him that Elizabeth and he would give birth to a son and name him John. (Lk 1:13)
As a member of the priestly tribe, John lead the people to God. He did that through his preaching to the people. He proclaimed that, "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 with fire." (Mt 3:11)
Finally, St. John the Baptist was connected with the great prophet Elijah. St. Gabriel told Zechariah that his son will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah (Lk 1:17). This is a reference to Malachi's words which prophesied that Elijah would prepare the way for the Lord's coming. (Mal 3:1 and 4:5-6)
Then John the Baptist is, of course, the one whom God sent to prepare the way for Jesus who initiated the new covenant. Even in his mother's womb, John the Baptist leapt in recognition of Jesus who was in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary when she came to visit her cousin. (Lk 1:41)
Breaking the Mold of a Priest's Son
After he grew up, John went into the desert region outside of Jerusalem and near the Jordan River. Here he began his ministry of calling men and women to repent in preparation for the coming of the Lord. John urged his listeners to turn away from sin and to return to the Lord.
However, when it came to being the son of a Levite priest, John did not fit the mold. He dressed in animal skins with a leather belt and he ate locusts and honey while staying out in the wilderness.
His garments remind of us of Elijah who dressed in the same way (2 Ki 1:8), and, indeed, Jesus confirmed that John is the Elijah who was to come. (Mt 11:14) John's diet makes it clear that he was a tough character and lived a life of penance. He is also faithful in observing the Law. There were not many insects that Jewish dietary laws allowed, but locusts were one of them. (Lev 11:22)
Interestingly, John was in the wilderness. Of course, the wilderness during the Exodus was the place where the Israelites were tested. They failed the test, but now there is a new wilderness experience offered by John. This is the new Exodus which Jesus will accomplish on the cross. To prepare for the new Exodus, John called people to come from the cities and villages in order to turn from their sins and undergo a baptism of repentance.
John's message to his listeners is clear. Repentance must be followed by fruit from the turning away from sin. His baptism (unlike the sacrament) was only a sign of the person's commitment. But John knew that real commitment meant showing that you have changed. It did not matter if you were a descendant of Abraham. What mattered was how your faith in God showed itself in your life. It started with turning away from sin, and it continued with living a life in obedience to God.
In Luke's Gospel, we read John's answer to the people's question of what they should do to show they have changed. St. John tells them to be generous (Lk 3:11), to be honest (Lk 3:13), and to promote social justice (Lk 3:14).
Finally, there is John's warning messages. He alludes to the judgment of God in which the Lord's winnowing fork will separate the wheat from the chaff on the threshing floor. The wheat will be gathered and stored, but the chaff will be burned in the unquenchable fire. (Mt 3:12)
As a forerunner for Jesus, John used an image that will also be found in several of Jesus' parables about the kingdom of God. For instance, in the parables of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24-30 and 36-43), the catch of fish in the net (Mt 13:47-50), and the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31-46), Jesus made it clear that there will be a final judgment in in which the righteous will be separated from the evil who are thrown into the fire.
Although John attracted many crowds to come hear him preach, his popularity was not enough to spare his life. After denouncing Herod Antipas' marriage because both he and his wife were divorced, Herod imprisoned John.
Initially, because of John's popularity, Herod was afraid to have John killed, and he was also somewhat fascinated by him. However, at one of his parties, Herod, who had drunk to much, offered any gift to his stepdaughter because he was pleased with her dancing. The stepdaughter consulted with her mother, who saw an opportunity to settle her score with John, and the stepdaughter asked to be given the head of John the Baptist. Because of the pressure to make good on his oath, Herod had John executed. His head was presented to the gathering at the party, and some of John's disciples retrieved his body in order to bury it.
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Feast Days: Birth: June 24th and Martyrdom: August 29th
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