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St John the Baptist, the Precursor (Feast Day, 24 June)
Most of us would be familiar with some of those beautiful early Renaissance paintings depicting the - extended - Holy Family where St Elizabeth and the Blessed Virgin Mary watch their children at play. These painters were untroubled by the reservations of those Scripture scholars who are loath to admit, not only any familiar intimacy, but even that John the Baptist had any aquaintance with Christ before the moment of his Baptism in the Jordan.
In other such paintings, whether of the Renaissance or later, John the Baptist figures in the maturity of his mission-role as the ascetic preacher of repentance or retribution; and in more recent times we have seen the redoubtable Charlton Heston adding this to his other several biblical or quasi-biblical roles.
Whereas generally the Western tradition has concentrated on the portrayal of a daunting ascetic, one notices in the Eastern iconographic tradition that John the Baptist is raised to quasi-angelic heights, being depicted with seraphic wings. Of course, the Eastern tradition does not aim at realism: rather its intention is to bring out the supernatural significance of the Baptist's role. One notes also his prominent and obligatory inclusion in the iconastasis of the Orthodox churches, always third in ranking, after Christ himself and his blessed Mother.
In our Western tradition, for the first millennium and more, John the Baptist headed the hierarchy of saints, second only to the Blessed Virgin herself. This is attested by his primacy of mention in the formulas of liturgical prayers: compare the former version of the Confiteor; compare also the Litany of the Saints, both in older and newer versions, and the Prayers for a Departing Soul.
Apart from those who live with the New Testament and are consciously aware of its content, most would not realise that no one who figures in its accounts, apart from Christ himself, is given such prominence. Exception might be made for Saints Peter and Paul in the Acts, but even there John the Baptist - though long since dead - achieves several mentions; but, in the Gospels themselves, John the Baptist looms larger than any other character, larger even than Mary, the Mother of Christ the Lord.
The Gospel writers were keenly aware of the Precursor's significant role in Salvation History and, in response to insistent questions, Christ himself on more than one occasion underlines this prominence: "... of all the children of women, greater than John the Baptist has never been seen ... it was towards John that all the prophecies of the prophets and the Law were leading ..." (Matt. 11:11,13); and, again, when Christ confutes the Temple authorities - who demand proof of his authority to take it upon himself to cleanse the Temple of the money changers - by challenging them to state their position in respect of the authority of the Baptist (Matt. 21:24-25).
John the Baptist is accorded parallel prominence and there is significant emphasis on his mission, his preaching and his untimely death in the work of the contemporary Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, which, unfortunately, we cannot enlarge on here.
One point of special interest, even if its significance may not be immediately apparent to most of today's readers, is that St Luke sees the beginning of the Baptist's ministry as marking a completely new stage in Salvation History. Witness his careful dating which - apart from the difficulty of determining the exact meaning to be read into "the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar" - is the most definite date in the Gospels: " In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar's reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Iturea and Trachonitis, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiphas, the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness" (Luke 3:1-2).
Luke has consciously - it can hardly be otherwise - modelled this "long periodic sentence ... an elegant beginning to his story as to how John affects world history" (New Jerome Biblical Commentary 43; 42) - on a passage where Thucydides, the greatest of the ancient historians, marked the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the World War of Hellenic history, which was to see the end of the city state polity of ancient Greece and the end of Athenian dominance: "In the fifteenth year of the Thirty Years Truce, in the forty-eighth year of the priestess-ship of Chrysis at Argos, when Aenesias was ephor in Sparta, and two years before the end of the archonship of Pythodorus at Athens ..." (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 2: c.1,2).
To conclude: it seems that the integrity of John and the authenticity of his message and mission is unconsciously confirmed by the simple though shrewd judgement of the people who, in attempting to discern whether Jesus was truly the promised Messiah, declared: "John indeed gave no signs (i.e., miracles) but all he said about this man (Jesus) was true." And as result "many believed in Jesus" (John 10:41-42).
Br Christian Moe FSC works at Corpus Christi Seminary, Melbourne.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 13 No 6 (July 2000), p. 20
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