The Catholic Witness of St. John the Baptist

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:2-3)

Caravaggio's Beheading of St. John the Baptist (detail)

St. John the Baptist is proclaimed by Jesus as the greatest of the Old Testament Prophets sent to prepare Israel for the time when the Messiah would make His appearance. As we see in the above quote, the Prophet Isaiah, centuries before, foretold the coming and mission of John.

St. John is also recognized as the first witness to the New Testament. He preached a baptism of repentance by water and told of the imminent coming of the Christ. He was a prophet, sent by God, to herald the coming of the true light and would touch the hearts of men and women who for so long had been living in a world covered by a spiritual darkness. There is little written of him – but enough that we know how he was conceived and to what purpose, how he lived, what he preached and how people were drawn to him, and how he died for the faith.

Each year, the gospel passage for the Mass on the Second Sunday of Advent is taken from an account of the life of St. John the Baptist. At first glance, we might not readily appreciate how much we can learn from this great and holy man.

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6).”

Few of us have gone out to live in a literal desert, dress as he did, or eat of wild locusts and honey. However, because the Church points to him each Advent – a time of watching and anticipation for the Lord, we should recognize that there must be something about him that is relevant to us in our lives as we live out our Christian faith.

What can we learn from the life of St. John the Baptist?

Before I attempt to answer this question, let’s take a moment to recollect ourselves in the Presence of God… to recall and reflect on the truth of Who God is and who we are… to realize that we were created for eternity and that this life of pilgrimage on this earth is exceedingly short and the time to come is everlasting. We can become all caught up in the unimportant activities that our culture deems important. We can even become caught up in good things and allow them to impede our true mission and vocation which is to attain the supernatural end for which we were made – to know love and serve God in this world and to spend eternity with Him in the life to come.

Now, what is it that we can learn from this great prophet and witness?

1. Spreading the Word of God through our Christian Witness and lives of Detachment

The first lesson for us from St. John is to live detached lives. Here is what is told us of John the Baptist in the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.

“John bore witness to him, and cried, ‘This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’

“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ They said to him then, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’” (John 1:6-8, 15, 19-23)

In a manner similar to how God sent St. John the Baptist, we too are called and sent by God to give witness to the light. No, we are not all called to live in a literal dessert nor are we called to dress and eat exactly as he did. But, we are all called to a life of self-denial, choosing instead the Creator as first in our lives over the created. Doing so might cost us something of the world… our place, our job, our friends, our worldly advantages and acclaim, and even the ultimate witness, martyrdom. But what we gain is the approval  of God and everlasting reward in Communion with Him.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) addresses the dignity and obligation of the work to which we submit through Baptism:

CCC 1268 – The baptized have become “living stones” to be “built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” By Baptism they share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission. They are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that [they] may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Baptism gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers.

CCC 1268 – “Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.

During this Advent season, we should reflect on this aspect of our baptismal promises. Truthfully, many do not recognize the importance of our call, as individual members of the Body of Christ, to be witnesses to His coming into the world and the work He accomplished.

One thing that has become certain to me in my ministry as a deacon, both in my own experience and in the experiences of those I encounter in my work and friendships – if we pray each day to be open to and aware of those the Lord places in our daily lives, we cannot fail to see the many opportunities to share the message and work of the Gospel. Pray also for the courage to carry out His will and share the good news in word and deed. There is someone to whom that the Lord wants you to share His message. There is someone for whom the Lord desires you to serve and care… meeting their needs, both spiritual and material.

2. Spreading the Word of God through our lives of Virtue and calls to Repentance

The second lesson that St. John teaches us is to live a life of virtue.  Living a life of virtue is not that difficult if we surrender to Christ and nourish our growing faith in prayer and the sacramental life. We must decide to stop offending God in grave matters. And we must also decide to stop offending Him in small matters. Living lives of heroic virtue is more difficult, but we are called to do so, therefore we must never tire of trying, even when we fail again and again.

Calling others to repentance is something that makes many of us uncomfortable… and it should. Let’s pause a moment here and look at what the gospels tell us about St. John.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’” (Matthew 3:7-10)

These are strong, harsh words and not only are we uncomfortable speaking them, it is usually not our place to speak them in this manner. St. John called Herod to repentance for Herod had unlawfully married his brother’s wife. For this, Herod beheaded St. John at the request of Salome (cf. Mark 6:14-29).

Is this example of St. John to be followed by us today? The simple answer is, “Yes!” The spiritual works of mercy, to which all are called, includes admonishing the sinner. But what few of us grasp is that this begins with our admonishing ourselves. What are the works of mercy? To live them all helps us to understand.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy The Corporal Works of Mercy
1. To instruct the ignorant 1. To feed the hungry
2. To counsel the doubtful 2. To give drink to the thirsty
3. To admonish the sinner 3. To clothe the naked
4. To bear wrongs patiently 4. To shelter the homeless
5. To forgive offenses willingly 5. To visit the sick
6. To comfort the afflicted 6. To rescue the captive
7. To pray for the living and the dead 7. To bury the dead

When appropriate, we are to do these works. In some cases, for example, it might not be our place to admonish a sinner; some other person might be more effective in doing so. In some cases, we might not be equipped to counsel the doubtful; again, this task in a particular instance might be better left to another. It takes prayer and wisdom to know. And that begins with our own conversion and response to the call to holiness.

So, the best course is to begin with oneself. There was a reason why so many were drawn to St. John when his words were so difficult to hear. I believe that reason was his own personal holiness. If we are giving a true witness to Christ by the very way in which we live our lives, it is far more likely that people will hear what we have to say.

3. Spreading the Word of God through our lives of Charity and Humility

And that brings us to the third lesson we can learn from St. John the Baptist – we must be poor in spirit and we must be charitable; and this must be demonstrated by our lives. This is a particular aspect of living the life of virtue.

In all that St. John did, he pointed the way to Christ instead of calling attention to himself for his own gain.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. (John 1:24-37)

“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:28-30)

This humility of St. John is among the most important of St. John’s examples for us to follow. It is the most important virtue (humility) for us to practice if we are to advance in the spiritual life and overcome the deadliest of sins (pride). None of the rest will matter without humility, performed in a spirit of love.

* * * * *

This is the Catholic witness of St. John the Baptist. This is the witness to the Lord and the faith that each of the baptized are called to live. And this Advent is a perfect time to begin. Let us pray that we will be open to God’s will and that when we begin our next Advent season in 2012, we will be able to give thanks for a faith that is deeper and more sure than it is this Advent.

Into the deep…


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About the Author

Deacon Mike Bickerstaff is the Editor in chief and co-founder of the The Integrated Catholic Life™. A Catholic Deacon of the Roman Rite for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bickerstaff is assigned to St. Peter Chanel Catholic Church where he is the Director of Adult Education and Evangelization.

He is a co-founder of the successful annual Atlanta Catholic Business Conference; the Chaplain of the Atlanta Chapter of the Woodstock Theological Center’s Business Conference; and Chaplain of the St. Peter Chanel Faith at Work Business Association and co-founder and Chaplain of the Marriages Are Covenants Ministry, both of which serve as models for similar parish-based ministries.

He and his wife have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

NB: The views I express on this site are my own. I am not an official spokesman for either my parish or diocese.

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