John the Baptist, June 24, 2012 – Rev. Emmett H. Carroll, S.J.
JOHN THE BAPTIST June 24, 2012 Rev. Emmett H. Carroll, S.J.
In July of 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition rowed from Saint Louis up the Mississippi River and into the Missouri River. Eventually they came to the Missouri River headwaters, to the place in Montana that today we name the Three Forks National Park. The Jefferson River, the Madison River, and the Gallatin River join to form the Missouri. Some years ago I visited this Park, and I mused first at the sight of these water-ways joining to form the longest river in the United States, and next my mind rumbled over Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
These explorers wrote extensive journals so that those who came after them might know the pine trees, the firs, the cotton woods. They sighted buffalo, cougar, bear, and deer. They recorded the fauna and the flora, the streams that enter the Missouri River; these two army captains wrote descriptions of the native people and how they lived. In short, Lewis and Clark pioneered the way west from Saint Louis, from the known into the unchartered land of the Columbia River. They endured the rain in miserable huts where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean at modern day Astoria, Oregon. These predecessors established a way west. They are our forerunners.
The athletic contests at Olympia in Greece staged contests in weight-lifting, in throwing the shot, and in track; these foreran our modern Olympic Games. Each of us has ancestors; they came before us, preparing for our arrival. We recall our forerunners.
The forerunner whom today we celebrate heralded the coming of Jesus Christ. At the time of birth, his mother received a visit from her cousin Mary, and the child in the womb startled his mother. “Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said: “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43).
At his birth, Elizabeth insisted that her son should bear the name “John.” Zachary, was asked. He wrote on a tablet: “John is his name,” and “all who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ For surely the hand of the Lord was with him”(Luke 1:57-66). You and I know that this would be the forerunner of the Jesus, the Christ.
“The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80). John the Baptist reaches maturity, and he lives in the desert, until the Holy Spirit urges him to be about his business. I think that John must have been quite self-possessed, entirely taken with his vocation to arouse the religious spirit. “John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). He wore the penitential garb of a prophet, and he spoke in religious terms as did the prophets.
With prophetic zeal he preaches a new message and offers a new rite. The message was that lineal descent from Abraham would not guarantee salvation, any more than, in contemporary terms, descent from Catholic forbears or from an initial Catholic inheritance will insure our own place among the blessed. Only an act of repentance would suffice, said John, and that should include renunciation of presumption based on election or on ethnicity. The God that had called Israel out of Egypt and led it across the Jordan River was now creating a new people by passing them through the waters of baptism in this same Jordan River. John was not founding a new religion; he attacked the use of religion as a defense against the demand of God for authenticity.
John’s message fell on Israel like fire on stubble, like the wild fire that currently ravages Colorado and Arizona. “All” Jerusalem walked to the Jordan River, a distance of perhaps twenty miles or more. The crowds coming to John included tax collectors and prostitutes. John was opening a way to God for those who had felt excluded. John identified with these people, dressing and eating like the poor folk, and like the lowly awaiting the Messiah. John centered on God, on living and preaching the prophets, especially, Isaiah.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth,
And all flesh shall see their salvation of God’ (Isaiah 40:3 ff.).
For all the notoriety that surrounds the Baptist, he feels no exaltation in himself. He attempts to dissuade Jesus from being baptized, but Jesus insists. The Baptist explains: “The reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel…. I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him…. Now I have seen and testify that he is the Son of God” (John 1:29-34). “[John] watched Jesus walked by; [John] said, ‘Behold the lamb of God.’ The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus” (John 1:29-37).
This fierce prophet attacks the falseness of the Scribes and Pharisees as a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7), and he attacks the immoral King who lives with his brother’s wife; for this attack, Herodias harbors a grudge, and bides her time until she could have-off the head of this forerunner(Mark 6:17-29).
John the Baptist posthumously receives the encomium from Jesus: The greatest individual of the Old Testament. We salute the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus, admirable, fearless, our forerunner in faithful adherence to the urging of the Holy Spirit.