Catholics around the world celebrate the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. Few saints played a greater role in salvation history. Known as the greatest prophet, he prepared the way for Jesus Christ.
Normally, I tend to remember the ending before the beginning of a story. The author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described it best, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of the ending. The liturgical feast the Catholic Church of the beheading of John the Baptist (Aug 29th) is a perfect example of a great beginning leading to an infinitely greater ending.
Defender of truth
John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the Savior. In Matthew 3:1 the prophet said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” His bold proclamation of truth developed a large following. During John’s entire ministry he focused on preparing his disciples to follow his cousin, the Ultimate Truth.
According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” John had a similar mindset. Later I will discuss his clothing selection—it certainly did not provide any earthly comfort! He lived out God’s truth so fully that he angered powerful leaders. He squared off against an evil ruler as well—King Herod. Standing up to the king, John called out Herod on him lusting after and seeking to marry his brother’s ex-wife Herodias.
John’s continual condemnation of Herod’s evil and advocation for morality led to John’s beheading. Benedict XVI in his August 29th, 2012 General Audience declared, “Celebrating the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist reminds us too, Christians of this time, that with love for Christ, for his words and for the Truth, we cannot stoop to compromises. The Truth is Truth; there are no compromises.”
Another way John the Baptist stood out was his frequent presence in the desert. Matthew 3 tells of John preaching in the desert of Judea—clothed in camel hides and eating locusts. Not something I could ever stomach even if I dipped the bugs in honey!
His fierce speech against false worship mirrors the harshness of the climate he endured. The Baptist chastised the Pharisees and Sadducees by saying,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones 10Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John’s tenacity for the faith is on par with that of Christ’s. His language against the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders reminds me of Jesus’ table tossing truth-bomb given in Matthew 21:12!
Harbinger of greatness
As profound a prophet John the Baptist was in his own regard, he ultimately paved the way for someone greater to follow—Jesus. Benedict XVI referred to John as The Precursor (August 29th, 2012 General Audience, Benedict XVI).
The liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church places the feast day of John the Baptist on June 24th. It is interesting to note that this placement is close to the summer solstice and the time of the year where the day slowly starts to grow less and less. Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, occurs after the winter solstice. During the darkest periods of the year, there exists hope on December 25th as the daylight is increasing. John the Baptist tells us his role in salvation history. The prophet states, “He must increase while I must decrease!” (John 3:30).
John also defers to Jesus in Mark 1:7-8 when he says, “And this is what he proclaimed: ‘One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.’”
Jesus gave great accolades to his cousin, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11). Christ also finished that statement by stating, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The greatness of the Baptist is not in his biological relationship to Jesus. His greatness is defined by his bold proclamation of truth, trusting in God, and humility as the Preparer for the Greatest One! Let us thank God for the fearless witness of John the Baptist.