The solemnity of St. John the Baptist is a prelude to the Lukan readings about to unfold in the remainder of Ordinary Time. John the Baptist wears a multicolored coat in the New Testament. He is a wild desert preacher dressed only in camel skin and eating locusts and wild honey, who inaugurates a widespread ministry of baptism for the forgiveness of sin. He takes up Isaiah’s cry to prepare the way of the Lord but calls the multitudes who throng to him (some perhaps out of curiosity) a “brood of vipers,” warns them of God’s wrath and threatens hellfire on those who pride themselves on their religious heritage. He baptizes Jesus amid the attending crowds, yet recognizes that he is uniquely sent by God, and is most remembered as the forerunner who prepares for the coming of Jesus. He dies a martyr’s death.
Only Luke recounts John’s birth, and we join the story at this birth when neighbors gather around to share Elizabeth’s joy. A week later, at the circumcision, the family wanted to name the child Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth, who had not heard the earlier message to Zechariah about the name, assumes the important role of naming a child and says “No, he will be called John” (which means “Yahweh has shown favor”). Zechariah agrees, his speech is restored and all the people are in awe and ponder in their hearts what happened, asking: “What then will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”
The Canticle of Zechariah, which follows, tells us what the child will be like. He will be a prophet (in Isaiah’s words, a “sharp-edged sword”), will go before the Lord and will be the herald of God’s compassion for humanity. Like every birth, John’s contains a vision of the future, and, like every birth, this future can be marked by suffering and tragedy. John will “complete his course” (Acts) by being brutally murdered by a scheming ruler (Herod Antipas). As death nears, John is a model not only of one who heard God’s word and lived, but of one who dies in great faith. From his prison cell he dispatches his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was “he who is to come,” only to receive the answer, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Lk. 7:19-22).
As Christians, we are baptized into Christ and “put on Christ.” As young Jesuits we were exhorted to be “other Christs.” After 50 years as a Jesuit, I see my life possibly as “another John,” pointing to Christ and preparing the way for Christ to enter others’ lives. Nor am I singular. I think every Christian is “another John,” favored by God, called to become strong in the spirit, to speak with courage against evil in the world and, perhaps, even as we complete our course, to ponder if we really did prepare for the one who is to come.