The Judean Desert. In the background is the Dead Sea, near which was the Qumran Community. (photo: Don Bosco Films)
“John wore a garment made of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist…” (photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, 1963, Joseph Pulitzer bequest)
Ain Karem, birthplace of John the Baptist in the Judean hills. (photo: Don Bosco Films)
“And they were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” (photo: CNEWA files)
“His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will clean out His threshing floor…” (photo: Don Bosco Films)
Before the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ could begin, fallen mankind had to be prepared for His coming. The books of the Old Testament record the story of this preparation in the words of the men who accomplished it: Gods specially appointed messengers, the prophets. With unceasing urgency and steady faith, they exhorted the people to make ready the way of the Lord. Repentance, hope and perseverance were the virtues they preached with words that were sometimes harsh, sometimes gentle, always insistent. The prophets built a bridge between God and His people until at last, rolling from the desert like thunder, came the voice of the prophet who was Christs own kinsman, who would bear witness to the beginning of the Messiahs public mission by baptizing Him in the Jordan. The One whose coming had been foretold would walk among His people, preceded by the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist.
The name John means God is gracious, and Johns very birth manifested the mercy of God. His parents, Elizabeth and Zachary, had remained childless into their old age. Among the Jews this was considered a reproach, and it was a source of great sadness to Elizabeth and Zachary. Their sorrow did not turn to bitterness, however; they were faithful to God and to His law.
One day when Zachary, a priest, was burning incense in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. Gabriel instructed Zachary to call the child John, and foretold Johns mission in the drama of salvation: He shall bring back to the Lord their God many of the children of Israel, to prepare for the Lord a perfect people.
Little is known of the early years of John the Baptist, but St. Luke relates that the child grew and became strong in spirit; and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel. Clad in the skins of animals, he nourished his body with locusts and wild honey and his soul with constant prayer and penance.
It is possible that John was influenced by the ascetic Qumran community, a sect of Jews who lived a strictly disciplined life in the desert, preparing for the coming of the Lord as prophesied by Isaiah. Members of the Qumran community held all property in common, and together they worked, prayed and studied sacred scripture. They also observed customs such as ritual washing and the sharing of a common religious meal. Whether John actually belonged to the Qumran community is not known, but his message that salvation was at hand finds an echo in the spiritual yearning and devout practices of this desert sect.
When the years of preparation were completed, John traveled to the region of the Jordan south of Lake Tiberias. It was here that he conducted his ministry, preaching to the crowds and baptizing hundreds in the shallow fords of the river. Those who came to be baptized were undoubtedly familiar with the ritual washings prescribed by Jewish law, and some might have known of the Qumran purification rites, but the baptism of John was different. It seems to have been administered only once, and was therefore symbolic of the beginning of a new life and a new order. John emphasized that this new life could only be fulfilled by the Messiah: I indeed baptize you with water. But one mightier than I is coming He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Warning, pleading, chastising and correcting, John urged his hearers to make themselves worthy of the kingdom that was at hand. He was fearless and outspoken as he challenged them to forsake their sinful ways. Eventually, it was this very candor that cost John his life.
Herod Antipas, king of Judea, had heard of John and the powerful effect John had on his numerous followers. The political climate was ripe for rebellion, and Herod feared an uprising. In addition, John had publicly denounced Herod for contracting a sinful marriage with his brothers widow, Herodias. The anger of Herodias and his own self-serving fears led Herod to cast John into prison.
One night when Herod was presiding at a banquet in honor of his birthday, he called for Salome, daughter of Herodias, to dance for the guests. Pleased with her sensuous performance, he promised to give her whatever she asked. Herodias, seizing her opportunity, ordered Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod granted the request.
John had given his entire life to prepare the way of the Lord. Now that his work was finished, he offered his death as well. Twice God had brought him forth from barren land scarred by deep longing: first from the womb of Marys cousin, and then from the stark and prayerful solitude of the forbidding desert. Johns birth and mission symbolized the power of God to bring life out of death and light out of darkness. The voice that came from heaven when John baptized Jesus signified that the Light now walked among men.
Christ Himself spoke strong words in praise of John the Baptist:
What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold, those who wear fine clothes and live in luxury are in the houses of kings. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall make ready thy way before thee. I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.
Clare Tierney is a freelance writer with an interest in Biblical studies and Eastern Church history.