Renewing the Mystery of Advent, Part Two: The Witness of John the Baptist

Why should we believe the testimony of a man who eats locusts and wears clothes made out of camel's hair?  Learning the reason will help ready our hearts for the coming of Christ.  

"It is Elijah!"

"It is Elijah the Tishbite!"  This is the confident declaration of King Ahaziah after hearing the bare report of a man "wearing a hairy garment with a leather girdle about his waist" (2 Kgs 1:7-8).  In the third chapter of Matthew's Gospel, when we hear the report that John the Baptist dressed in the identical costume, we too are meant to recognize him immediately as Elijah — the prophet who is to come.  "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great day of the Lord" (Mal 3:24).

Of course, it is not John's clothes that most profoundly reveal his identity.  A mysterious typology connects Elijah and the Baptist, a spiritual kinship that unites the ascetic of Carmel who was granted a theophany on Horeb and the austere Nazirite who beheld the Triune God on the banks of the River Jordan. 

The appearance of each man is sudden and enigmatic.  Elijah bursts into the narrative of 1 Kings 17 without warning, just as John the Baptist, abruptly "happens" (as the Greek literally says) in the stark desert of Judea.  An eerie parallel unites their arch-enemies.  In the days of Elijah, Ahab, a sullen weakling, sits on the throne with Jezebel, his vixen consort.  In the days of John, it is Herod Antipas and Herodias: a feeble hedonist and a venomous plotter.  In two different ages, two twisted couples rule over Israel; and in each age a lonely prophet arises.  In a world oppressed by a dynasty of sin both John and Elijah undertake a treasonous task: they preach repentance with fire and call the whole nation to confess and forsake its sins.

"They did not recognize him."

In view of these similarities, the Gospel takes an ironic turn.  Questioned by His disciples about the coming of Elijah, Jesus replies: "I tell you, Elijah has already come, but they did not recognize him" (Mt 17:12).  Somehow, the visitation had been missed.  Even to the crowds who trekked into the wilderness to be baptized by John — even in the expectant eyes of a nation actively awaiting its consolation — Elijah had not yet been spotted.  The crowds, after all, could perceive one thing: "John did no sign" (Jn 10:41); he did not perform any of the miraculous deeds of Elijah: multiplying food or raising the dead.  More than that, the Baptist himself had flatly denied the suggestion.  "'Are you Elijah?'  'I am not,' he said" (Jn 1:21).            

 Of course, as the Church father, Origen, understood, John's response was addressed to an overly literal identification; for we must distinguish between the reincarnate soul of Elijah on the one hand, and the "spirit and power of Elijah" (Lk 1:17) on the other.  It was the latter which rested upon John, just as it had upon Elisha (2 Kgs 2:15).  Still, even this shared spirit of prophetic power apparently went unnoticed by all.  Only Jesus could recognize the voice and discern the true visage of John.  Thus, only a revelation from Jesus could open the disciples' eyes: "Then they understood that he spoke to them about John the Baptist" (Mt 17:13).  Jesus alone could perfectly recognize that John was Elijah.  And so, in a curious and circular exchange of testimony, John pointed out Jesus' identity, only to have Jesus point out John's. 

"They did to him whatever they pleased."

But, in that case, what exactly was accomplished by this so-called 'coming of Elijah' — this pattern of resemblance — if no one was able to recognize the Baptist as Elijah until after the messiah had already been identified?  (The disciples were not present to hear Jesus' testimony about John in Matthew 11.  Jesus revealed John's identity to them only after the Transfiguration in chapter 17 — namely, after Peter's confession of the Lord's own identity in chapter 16.)  Doesn't such a retroactive identification of John as Elijah seem a bit like cooking the facts to fit the conclusion?  How could this inconspicuous "Elijah" function as a signal to the nation of the nearness of the Lord's messianic coming?    

The problem is significant enough that Albert Schweitzer, the famous German theologian, tried to circumvent its difficulty by rejecting the Gospel report and re-arranging the order of the witness.  In other words, he thought that the historical Jesus must have first identified John as Elijah; only then could the Lord's disciples have deduced that the days of the messiah were upon them and, hence, that Jesus Himself must have been the messiah. 

But this solution garbles the Gospel and thus obscures the mystery.  John's appearance is not the mere premise of a syllogism.  He cannot be so reduced, simply checked off as a necessary condition for authenticating the messianic age.  Ultimately, John goes unrecognized because his mission of self-effacement is so complete.  "He must increase and I must decrease" (Jn 3:20).  His is a feat of humility surpassed, according to Sergei Bulgakov, only by the fiat of the Mother of God and the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Son of God.  It is precisely in this appetite for humility that we discover a parallel to Christ more striking than his resemblance to Elijah: a kinship not only in the spirit, but in the flesh.  Elijah rode to heaven in a chariot; but John went before the Lord on a humbler, bodily, suffering path to heaven.  "They did to him whatever they pleased.  So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands" (Mt 17:12).  An unrecognized, suffering messiah called for an unrecognized, suffering Elijah.  Only the Bridegroom and His friend recognized one another, because only they perceived the secret fate of the Lamb.   

"More than a prophet."

Now, we begin to understand the trustworthiness of John.  He was more than a prophet (Mt 11:9): he was a witness.  He lived through the Incarnation.  He truly experienced and saw what Elijah and the other prophets only mystically prefigured and foresaw.  The appearance of John the Baptist signals the advent of the Lord because John no longer offers prophecy; he offers testimony.  He beheld — and recognized — the Son of God humbled as a man.        

The mystery of the Baptist's appearance, the dignity of his identity, revolves around this question: In the providential design, who must a man be to offer such testimony, to vouch for and disclose God's own identity?  Before the scandal of his Passion, Jesus Himself over and over prevented others — even His disciples — from testifying on His behalf, because they did not yet understand the lowliness of His mission.  John alone was entrusted with this message.  "Behold the Lamb of God!" (Jn 1:35).  John was drawn up into that rare light which radiated around him: the transfiguring light of humility shining out from the Incarnation.  He was not the light; yet he was suffused by the light and became, for a time, a burning and shining lamp (Jn 5:35). 

For this reason, "Among those born of women there has arisen none greater than John the Baptist" (Mt 11:11).  Yet, in this Sunday's Gospel the same John proclaims the advent of one greater than he — greater because He will offer an even greater witness, the witness of one who has seen the Father.  "The testimony which I have is greater than that of John" (Jn 5:36). 

This Advent season let us pray that the Lord will equip us to recognize and receive the testimony of Christmas: the full revelation of God's love in the lowliness of a manger.  With John the Baptist, let us go into the desert and train our spiritual sight to see more clearly in the dim light of humility; for only eyes tuned to lowliness, self-effacement, and suffering can penetrate and behold the radiance that lies concealed beneath unassuming appearances — beneath a garment of camel hair or a child in a feed box.  This year, may the Lord baptize us anew with His Holy Spirit and with fire, charging us with a new fervor to live and move in the dark light of His revelation.  May the path of humility and suffering, the confession and forsaking of our sins, by the grace of God, bring us to behold with John the glory of the Triune God shining on the face of the Lamb.

The second video presentation accompanying this Advent series is available here or by clicking on the front page button in the right column under CE Faith Factory.

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