From John the Baptist: Prophet and Disciple
John the Baptist, since the time of the Counter-Reformation, has been lost to the Christian tradition. Some biblical scholars try to confine him to the status of an Old Testament figure. With the decline of monasticism, his severe virtues seem irrelevant to many modern Christians. It is one of the aims of this book to make one, small attempt to restore John to the beadroll of Christian heroes, to reinstate him to his proper and august role, as he is depicted in the ancient renditions of the Deësis, as an intercessor for all humankind second only to Mary. John has much to offer as a model for contemporary Christians, as we would expect of the saint who received from Christ’s own lips the incomparable accolade: “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:11)
There is a psychological block that has grown up over centuries between modern man and sanctity. The ex-monk, Martin Luther, in the sixteenth century denigrated the virtues of monastic life and set in motion a disdain for ascetic virtues like fasting and self-denial. This has led to a twenty-first-century fascination with a user-friendly religion that never talks of sin or judgment or hell. Many modern churches have no crosses and feature a theatre-style architecture with rock-religion festivals for large congregations. The mediocrity of much spirituality today is that it is too superficial, too lacking in intellectual substance, and not steeped in the scriptures, which are the word of God, especially any word of contradiction to the value system of the culture. Simone Weil once said, “Our age is in need of a sanctity that has genius.” Saint John the Baptist can provide for us the model of a sanctity that has genius.
John’s call to holiness emphasizes the sterner Christian virtues that need reinvigoration today. We can’t form an ideal of holiness until we have an idea of sin. Only sixty years ago whole Catholic families would go to confession every Saturday afternoon. Today, this practice has disappeared. Is this because we no longer need forgiveness? Or because we don’t sin anymore? Such questions are deeply troubling. But these very attitudes may have been what led John to proclaim to his hearers the need for repentance and the imminence of the coming judgment and the advent of the kingdom of Heaven. John preached a very basic (not mystical) spirituality in which the first essential is repentance: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Matthew 3:7-8) John’s repentance is first, a turning away from sin, though it is not confined to this. The first step requires the recognition of our sins and the sorrow for their great harm. The unbridgeable chasm between the divine and the human can only be crossed by repentance, for that is the basis for us to live again in God’s love. The second requirement is the performance of good works. Remember the lines from Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews: “In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.” John did not find words of repentance adequate, he insisted that repentance first be expressed in action, “the fruits of repentance.” He would tolerate no complacency or presumption that wishes to rely for salvation on descent from Abraham. John was preparing a new people for the Lord, and he wanted each person to be judged on his own merits and actions.
This repentance of John’s is presented, like the prophets of old, in a context of impending crisis – the wrath of God and the coming of judgment with its prospect of unquenchable fire. John was not one to mince words, but to those who backed up their sincere repentance with good deeds, John offered what Mark describes as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) If John were alive today, his priority, it would seem, would be a restoration of the sacrament of confession to a position of central importance. He would require sincere acts of mortification as evidence of good faith. And he would point out to us that in this metanoia, or conversion, we are receiving a surgical removal of the roots of sin that can only be achieved in this way. And he would insist that repentance is an act that can never be finished. It must become a constant state of the soul, if we are to flee the wrath that is to come. It is not enough to sin no more, it is necessary to continue doing good works, to share our riches with the poor.
The key to John’s spirituality lies in understanding the insistence of the fathers that John’s monasticism is not just a model for monks, but for all the faithful. This is the same notion as that of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, a saint of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, who held that each and every Christian can and must become “an untonsured monk.” Saint John the Baptist’s spirituality is an example of what Paul Evkokimov in his Ages of the Spiritual Life calls “interiorized monasticism.” John’s virtues can be adapted to provide a monasticism for all, because John was such a strong advocate of the basics in Christian life. We should not be startled by this idea that we should all become monks. It does not mean that we must take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but it does mean that, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, we should become poor in spirit, pure of heart, and obedient to the will of God.
In the Gospels we see that John is a pioneer in the acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the three great Lenten virtues. When the disciples come upon our Lord praying, one of them asks, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1) John is the first great teacher of prayer we encounter in the New Testament. From his stay in the desert, he knew the therapeutic effects of silence, solitude, and contemplation. Jesus, like John, would always seek a lonely place to pray. That teacher of John in the desert, the Holy Spirit, does not speak to us over the din of the crowds or television. He whispers to us as gently as the flutter of the wings of a dove. Prayer requires great effort and a strong resistance to laziness and distraction. While we do not have any of John’s prayers, we do know that when Jesus was asked to teach his disciples to pray as John did, he taught them the Our Father. We might surmise from this that the essence of John’s prayer was to get his disciples to conform themselves totally to the will of God and in the simplest possible words. Regular prayer or the habit of praying without ceasing is the best means for cultivating the ability to walk in another’s shoes, to see the world through God’s eyes, to acquire that humility which is the foundation of a spiritual life.