By Sr. Kathryn, SSJD.
We first hear of John the Baptist in the story of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, his mother, but the hidden deeper story of his life begins much earlier than this and this is what will be explored today. As we know, John’s life events corresponded with Jesus in many ways throughout, always seemingly one step ahead and not totally identical, but he was a precursor in many ways.
The life of John is documented only briefly in the New Testament but by looking at other sacred texts and sources we find mention of the broader story in the both the Orthodox tradition and the Quran. We begin with parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah and look at the context before John’s birth, right after and briefly into his adulthood.
Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were of the house of Aaron. This entitled Zechariah to be one of the priests who alternated duties at the temple in Jerusalem. We are told that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were of advanced age. That as Zechariah got older he began to worry over who would continue the legacy of preaching the message of God after his death, who would continue the right to conduct the daily services of the temple after him. Zechariah prayed to God for a son. A son whom Zechariah could give his most precious possession the right to priesthood in the Jerusalem temple.
In fulfilment of his prayer, an angel of God appeared and announced to him that his wife would give birth to a son, whom he was to name John, and that this son would be the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah, despite his prayers, asked with disbelief for a sign that would show the truth of this prophecy. The angel identified itself as Gabriel, sent especially by God to make this announcement, Gabriel told Zechariah because of his doubts he would be struck dumb and not able to speak until after the birth. Zechariah returned to his house in Hebron, in the hill country, and his wife conceived. This was the longed-for miracle child for elderly parents long past the age of child-bearing.
During the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary visits and stays until the birth, deeply bonding with each other within the wonder and mystery of God’s grace incarnating into their bodies and lives.
The next scene is of the circumcision ceremony, Zechariah remains dumb and while the men at the temple kept calling the child Zechariah, Elizabeth, who would not normally speak, interrupted them saying the child’s name was John. Zechariah wrote confirming the name of John, and suddenly regained the power of speech. He blessed God with a heartrending prophesy of joy known as the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah. He foretells the role of John, how God’s message will renew what has been corrupted and lost by the Israelites, ushering in a new era of prophets, a threshold of transformation and regeneration for the people.
These events and prophesy caused fear among the neighbours and news spread in the region, as to what it could all mean. This news was to be the catalyst of the next stage in John’s life impacting him in only a few short months from his birth. This short pause of John’s life recedes in the background as the majesty of Jesus’s birth to Mary becomes the single most transforming moment of all life and in the history of humanity, God is now with us in human form.
We now face the tragedy resulting from Herod’s fear of a messiah threatening the foundation of all he knows and relies on to maintain his dominion. Herod orders the murder of all children under two. We pick up John’s story in the Protoevangelium of James, a second century apocryphal work also documented in Eastern Orthodox writings. We hear how the word of the miracle of Zechariah’s offspring spreads to Herod triggering a visit to Zechariah by Herod’s soldiers. Zechariah refuses to divulge the whereabouts of his son, who was already in hiding, and Zechariah is murdered in the temple. The passage in Matthew 23:35 states ”… the murder of Zechariah, son of Berekiah, who you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar”.
Elizabeth meanwhile has heard of the search and has taken John up into the hill country to hide in mountainous caves. We lose the trail at this point, but some scholars speculate that John was raised in an orphanage for the children of priests, run by the Essene community. We know Elizabeth was elderly and can venture that her time with John would have been foreshortened. It would have been a harsh, deprived life, lived in fear and sorrow of loved ones lost.
John is exiled from his people, and living under the same threat as Jesus was. These events endured so soon after their births and must have impacted them both in ways that lay a foundation for how they would live their lives going forward. Wilderness is harsh, in reality or metaphorically, but can form us into a people who endure, honing and forming character by growing and becoming strong in the spirit, body and mind. John lived this life eluded to in the Gospel when he emerges to begin his prophesy of a messiah. He gained a following of disciples and ultimately encouraged them to follow Jesus as was prophesized in Isaiah, ‘in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord’.
In praying and reflecting on the life of John I found the 15th century painting, a copy of which is offered for your own personal reflection. It was painted by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, a member of the Order of Saint John, a commandery in Haarlem in the Netherlands. He died at the age of 28 but not before leaving several paintings that all express deep religious meditation.
We see John sitting somewhat melancholy in a real tragedy of feeling but it is best expressed in a book by Johannes H Hemminghaus called St John the Baptist, in which he says:
“John is seated on a bench covered with moss, in deep thought. The lamb of God is seated next to him. This is scarcely a desert, but is solitude, in fact it is a blossoming landscape in May, a landscape animated by all sorts of animals of the North. The feet are clumsy, and it seems that the Saint is confused by the disorderly world of man. We are supposed to find here the tragedy of the man of intellect, a preacher to whom all of Jerusalem came and who had to die through the intrigues of an adulteress. This is expressed simply, but it touches deeply, and as an expression of art it is fully convincing.”
While John sits surrounded by a vitality of natural life in constant motion around him, beauty, grace and harmony, he himself is still and immersed in thought. I see in John’s eyes a bewildered child, caught up in the whirlwind of violence, loss, exile and grief. A man who has met God alone in the wilderness surrendering himself to the all that God provides, the painful struggles and the moments of ecstatic blessing. To paraphrase Hemminghaus. A man who has taken on the tragedy inherent in the world, a tragedy transcended, his expression of mildness and devotion is not irreconcilable with the pains he has suffered, but what he has overcome.
This is the life we all must face, the tragedies of life inherent in our world, violence at our doorstep, global refugees fleeing from tyranny and intolerance, immense numbers of deaths from pandemics and disease, numerous personal tragedies we are called to transcend only by God’s grace, mercy and blessings. We seek to offer the surety of God’s message of love echoing through the ages, surrounding us and living through us if we could only see as God sees.
As Jesus said in Matthew 11:11: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” Thanks be to God.