When Catholics typically celebrate the Saints in the liturgy, we often think of those like the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin, doctors of the Church, etc. While all of these are important saints, the saint we celebrate today is often not thought of as in their company. Yet St. John the Baptist probably rivals only Jesus and the Blessed Mother in importance to Christians. When we invoke the names of the saints in the Confiteor (in the Extraordinary Form), only Mary is given a higher honor than that of John the Baptizer. In various Eastern liturgies, he is frequently referred to as “the Great Forerunner” and is held in the highest of esteem.
Why have Catholics traditionally held John the Baptist in such high esteem? A lot of modern commentary focuses on two aspects of John’s life: The Visitation, and his beheading. (Of interest is that the Extraordinary Form and Eastern Rites also commemorate his beheading.) This is done for understandable reasons. In today’s culture of death, it is nice to be reminded that even the unborn were sanctified by Christ’s presence, and how from the moment of his conception John was destined for greatness. Likewise, in a society experiencing the redefinition of marriage, it is comforting to remember that John spoke against a similar evil (in condemning a marriage contrary to God’s law) and was martyred for it.
Important as these things are, I think it would be a mistake to confine John to the setting of the modern culture wars. Jesus called him the greatest prophet, and viewed it essential that he be baptized by John. I want this to sink in your head before we continue. The Almighty and Omnipotent God viewed it essential that he be seen as a follower and spiritual successor of a man. What makes John so important?
To understand this, we need to understand the nature of a prophet. Far too often, the office of the prophet is portrayed in contemporary eyes as that of a glorified fortune teller. To prophesy is to speak only of future events, and normally in a very obscure fashion. This is quite simply not the biblical concept of a prophet. A prophet existed to announce to the people that they had to recapture their original calling through repentance. Once they had done this, they could then live in security for the future. If they did not, then their continuing decline would reach a critical point. In short, they used the past to change the present so the future would be better.
A secondary reason for a prophet’s existence was that of building up. Through the faithful execution of their office, they help trigger a spiritual renewal within those they minister to. While the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah might have been viewed as the low points of Judah’s military power, they were viewed as a high point of Israel’s relationship with God, due to the actions of Isaiah and Jeremiah.
It is only through this perspective can John the Baptist’s greatness be understood. In the Canticle of Zechariah, his father announces to Israel that his son will:
1.) Give salvation unto the people. (Luke 1:77)
2.) Bring them God’s mercy upon the people (1:78)
3.) Enlighten those who sit in darkness (1:79)
4.) Direct the path of Israel in God’s peace (1:79)
In doing these things, it is not enough to say that John the Baptist is fulfilling his ministry. In doing these things, he is fulfilling the ministry of Israel. Israel was chosen by God (Deuteronomy 14:2) to be a holy priesthood among the nations (Exodus 19:6), whose purpose was to reveal God to the Gentiles. John arrives on the scene exhorting Israel that the purpose of their existence is finally at hand. For thousands of years they were called to live a life of witness to a coming messiah. Now that Messiah was imminent, so they had to start taking things seriously. The moment of salvation every generation since Adam had hoped for was finally at hand. Even objects of scorn such as the Pharisees and Sadducees recognized that something important was about to happen, as they too went and saw John. (Matthew 3:6-7)
In addition to announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah, John calls upon not just Israel, but the entire world to enter a stage of spiritual renewal. He rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees by noting their mind was in the right place, but their heart wasn’t. (Matthew 3:7-10) Even pagans and traitors (roman soldiers and tax farmers) recognized his greatness, and came to him seeking advice on how to transform their lives. John doesn’t turn them away, as Israel’s tradition had long welcomed the foreigner, especially when he turned towards God. (Isaiah 42:6)
Another way he fulfilled the prophetic office was by “making straight the path for the Lord.” While this can be viewed as him being the vanguard of Christ, I think a deeper interpretation is also likely. John shows the nations the clear path to God. He commands people to repent, do penance, and be baptized. After this, they are to prepare themselves and others for the one who comes after Him, who baptizes with the Spirit. In today’s world there are many who speak of finding ways to God. Even in our Church, we have those who are of reputed authority who offer a way to God, but it is not a clear and straight path. While never doing so uncharitably, John clearly points the way to God for others to follow.
This is why John the Baptist is held in such high regard: He was the prototype of all Christians. He announced Christ to the world, he did so in a manner the people could understand, and he encouraged a real spiritual renewal take place as a result of these two points. As we continue to look for models to live our lives after, let us today look upon the example of the Holy Forerunner.