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.
On another occasion in Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples of John come to Jesus and ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus replies that, “When the bridegroom is taken away from them. . . then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15) Unfortunately, we do not today think of fasting as necessary, as John and Jesus and Judaism and the early church did. In the early church, it was common to observe a fast two days a week, Wednesday and Friday. Fasting is a sign of our detachment from the things of Earth and an acknowledgement that we are abiding by the Lord’s command to fast until the bridegroom returns. It is, therefore, concrete evidence of our expectation of the Parousia. The power of fasting can be seen in the book of Jonah where, to Jonah’s chagrin, both the people and the animals of Nineveh put on sackcloth and fast, and God relents from destroying Nineveh. This power of fasting can also be seen in Jesus’s comment that some devils can be cast out only by prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:29) Have we disregarded the Lord’s command to fast? Have we missed out on the opportunities fasting offers us? Fasting is the body’s participation in the training of the soul. It leads to a freedom of heart and mind and an independence from material things. John’s thirty years of fasting in the desert is memorialized for us in Rodin’s statue of the ascetic John. Jesus has left us the example of fasting during his forty days and forty nights in the desert. Fasting has a special consequence of putting spiritual and material things into a proper perspective. It is a sign of our solidarity with the poor. It is much to be hoped that our bishops will realize that in making fasting optional, both in much of Lent and before receiving the Eucharist, they have, as Eamon Duffy has argued, abandoned the focus of Catholic identity, a communal practice as old as the church itself and a command of the Lord’s that cannot simply be made a matter of private choice without incalculable losses. There is no substitute for fasting. Fasting and prayer are the twin pillars of spiritual life. Fasting is the way in which the body participates in our prayer. As John, the emaciated ascetic, would surely counsel us, we neglect the practice of fasting at the peril of our souls.
The third Lenten virtue, almsgiving, is one John recommended to the crowds that asked him, “What, then, should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:10-11) In the small samples we get in the Gospels of John’s preaching, these verses stand out as his urgent concern for the poorest of the poor. John recommends almsgiving not just to benefit the poor, the direct beneficiaries, but to benefit the givers also. This advice is given in the context of preparing the way of the Lord and of establishing with eschatological urgency that “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9) John is always focused on the test of deeds. He is saying to us that it is not by what you say but by what you do that you will be judged. John would be a great exponent of the examen, the daily examination of conscience to test whether our actions have matched our words, whether our practice of virtue has matched our ambitions. It is the only way that one can distinguish the good tree from the bad tree – by its fruits.
We have noted that in the desert John was the first to practice, what have become in imitation of him, the monastic and Christian virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The essence of the ascetic, as the etymology of the word tells us, is exercise, spiritual exercise designed to teach us love. John taught us these virtues more by example than by precept. His father was a priest and probably well-off economically. True poverty is not necessarily to lack material goods, but to be detached from them, to give up voluntarily their dominion over us. But John did both. He left his father’s house probably around the age of twelve and practiced the most severe poverty known to man – a practice without precedence in Jewish culture except among some of the prophets, most notably Elijah. Riches in that culture were a sign of God’s blessing, as we see in the case of Job. So John was very clearly establishing this countercultural virtue of poverty as a new Christian ideal.
In somewhat the same fashion, John was unmarried and cultivated chastity in a culture where each man was expected to marry. John and Jesus were exceptions to the pattern in their society. So far as we know, most of the apostles, including Peter, were married. When did this virtue of chastity, of purity of heart, first became a Christian virtue? It was, I believe, in the Judean desert, where John went to purify himself in the burning sands, to live like an angel and to give his whole heart to the Lord. For as Saint Paul has taught us, chastity without charity is a meaningless virtue. John was cleansing himself of all distractions in order to concentrate on the Lord. He was teaching us the same lesson as that old song, “I have no use for divided hearts: I give mine whole and not in parts.”
The older we get, the harder it is to regard obedience as a virtue. It is annoying and constraining to be subject always to the will of another. But in his desert school, taught by the Holy Spirit, John learned his lessons slowly. First he learned that always to obey is to be a martyr without dying. Second and only over a long period, did he come to realize the lesson that Dante has taught us: “In your will, O Lord, is our peace.” For this lesson comes home to us only through the slow progress of self-denial and the cultivation of that humility which can say and mean: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Fidelity to God in temptation and in struggle is impossible except for those who have led a harsh and austere life of detachment. And John’s life was succession of detachments – from his home, from his clothing, from his pride and his selfishness, and in his imprisonment, from his freedom, from his role as precursor, and finally from his head. While we – weak humans without John’s angelic virtues – cannot imitate John in all his detachments, we can imitate him in his immense journey to the interior of the soul by imitating his virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience in our own adapted ways. We should remember that for John, his death to the world in the desert did not mean a refusal to live in the world, for John sent his disciples back from the desert to do just that. He never set up a monastery in the desert like the Essenes. His headquarters were the desert, but from there, he traveled along the Jordan River to baptize and to preach and to teach. We should recall that the tax collectors addressed John as a rabbi and teacher when they said, “Teacher, what should we do?” (Luke 3:12) We too are his students who desire to ask him, “Teacher, how do we advance in the spiritual life?”
When John puts off the old man in the desert, behold the new has come! John becomes our personal precursor to Christ, our guide to Christ. His innovative dedication to baptism should be a reminder to us of our own baptism in Christ, for as Paul tells us, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4) This reflection on our own baptism is a revelation of the divinity of Christ and of our inclusion into his body, as we await a resurrection like his. There is an ancient and lovely inscription on the Johannine Baptistery of the Lateran Basilica that reads: “Sinner go down into the sacred fountain that your sins may be washed away. You go down old in sin, you come up in the newness of youth.”
As we heard from the fathers, the ministries of grace are not given for just one age; they are permanent, and John’s role as precursor and guide to Christ is his permanent role in Christianity. In the fourth Gospel, John the witness gives us his own distinctive Christology. He is for us, as he was for Jesus’s contemporaries, a witness to the light of the world so that he might bring all to believe in this light. He is the first to testify that Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus becomes for us the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:20-22 that bears all the sins of the people and is exiled into the wilderness. He also becomes the Passover lamb, who is sacrificed to procure our freedom. John’s faith response is to emphasize his personal experience that John is able to say, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (John 1:27) We too must cultivate this deep sense of the presence of God, for to live in the presence of God is to begin the journey on the long road to sanctity.
John would have us come so close to Christ that he is our friend, as John was “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him.” (John 3:29) John’s dedication to Christ should lead us to hear him, for imitating Christ, we form the habits that advance us in the pursuit of holiness. One of those habits and one of the ways of hearing Christ, a way that John pursued in the desert, was reading the scriptures. John often quotes the prophets, especially Isaiah and Malachi and his imagery, like lamb of God and light of the world, and his apocalyptic images of fire, the winnowing fork and the chaff, all come from his deep reading the scripture, his scripture, which was the Old Testament.
The spirituality of John, like the spirituality of the medieval monks, was shaped by the reading of scripture, lectio divina, a phrase more accurately translated as praying the Scriptures. As the word of God has been restored by Vatican II to a central place in the life of the church, it is time we restored the ancient practice of praying the Scriptures. Saint Jerome used to remind us that ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ. As John knew, the word of God comes from God and leads to God. It is the means by which we, like John, live in God. Christ himself practiced this prayerful reading of scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth when he read in the scroll from the prophet Isaiah and then proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) Just as John had the Holy Spirit as his private tutor in the desert, we too can have the Holy Spirit guide us to discern Christ in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures, and he who breathed in also breathes out. The Spirit leads us to see that the Scriptures are the nourishment for the mind, just as the Eucharist is nourishment for the body and soul. Thus, we must always remember that praying the Scriptures is different from reading the Scriptures. Scripture is the science of salvation, and we must not read it like spectators, but pray it like participants. Lectio divina is a dialogue and we must have the patience to wait for the Holy Spirit to speak to us.
Like the crowds at the river Jordan, we come to John and say, “What are we to do?” John was the road maker, the trailblazer who prepared the way for Christ, and in doing so, he also prepared his disciples, patiently molding them into spokesmen for God and servants of the word. As he sensed the imminence of his own death, he passed his disciples over to Christ. In John’s Gospel the last words we hear from John are when he leads Andrew and probably Philip to Jesus, saying, “Look, here is the lamb of God!” and from there they become apostles of Christ. This is what John would do for us: send us to Christ to become his apostles and, like John himself, missionaries to the world. Teachers are common, but masters are rare, and John is a rare master of the spiritual life. He wishes to teach us to give away the gift that has been given to us – faith. To do so, we must have the same fire and zeal and spirit as John. We must be friends to sinners but fearful enemies of figures who create public scandal. We must pursue perfection and as Augustine assured us, we have no better model of perfection than John. He teaches us that the messenger of God must be austere and mortified, if his words are to be heard and accepted and able to pierce the most hardened hearts. If we have not converted someone to Christ, what shall we have to say at the particular judgment? And if we do, we shall have that reward of joy that John speaks of when he says that “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.” (John 3:29) And it is this joy which is the echo of Christ’s life in us. Saint Augustine once remarked that “The voice [of John the Baptist] gradually ceases its office in the measure that the soul progresses toward Christ.” “He must increase, I must decrease.” Saint John Chrysostom was fond of comparing John to a bridge: “He spans the reality of today and stretches off into the future.” He is the permanent precursor and guide to Christ, and it is to him that we owe it that we are Christians. He is the universal missionary, the voice crying out to all peoples. He is the one who can give us a renewed sense of sin and restore to its proper place the sacrament of reconciliation. He can restore fasting as the indelible badge of Catholics. He can remind the entire church that it is an apocalyptic community awaiting the return of the Christ at the Parousia. As we live in the most consumption-minded culture in history, who could better teach us the practice of poverty and simplicity of life? Do we not have an urgent need for John’s virtues today as a source both of courage and of spiritual renewal?