“. . . among those born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist”

by May Tam
Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

2 Peter 3:8-14

Mark 1:1-8

The greatness of John the Baptist is foretold by an angel (before his birth rf Lk 1:14-17) and his father Zachary (after his birth rf Lk 1:75-77). Both Mark and John choose to begin their gospels by introducing Jesus through him. Besides being the precursor of Christ, many acknowledge John's significance as the last prophet of the Old Testament whose arrival ended the nearly four hundred years of prophetic silence (between the time of Malachi and the coming of the Messiah) in the history of Israel. As the hinge joining the Old and the New Testament, many see that he is also the pivotal figure in the history of salvation. Standing astride the old and the new eras, John is truly unique. His message embraces both the Law and the Prophets (the “wrath of God” and His coming judgment rf Lk 3:7-9,17; Mt 7-12) as well as the New Covenant (the need of repentance and baptism as the new way for the forgiveness of sins rf Lk 3:3; Mt 3:1-4; Mk 1:4-5). But I would like to point out what makes Jesus say about John (rf Lk 7:28, Mt 11:11) is not because of his honourable status (rf Lk 1:5-6) nor his relation to Jesus (rf Lk 1:36) nor his designated role as the forerunner of the Messiah (rf Lk 1:76-77), but the manner in which he fulfills his office (rf Lk 7:24-26; Mt 11:9-13).

In fervour and zeal, John's appearance and bold character resemble that of Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament (rf Mk 1:6, 6:18; 1 Kgs 18:18; 2 Kgs 1:8). Taken heavenward without dying and prophesied by Malachi, Jewish tradition literally interprets the future return of Elijah as the harbinger of the Lord's coming (rf 2 Kgs 2:11; Mal 4:5). Jesus Himself affirms that the prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in the person of John in the spiritual sense (rf Mt 11:13-14, 17:10-13; Mk 9:12-13). When John speaks, clothed with authority as the returning Elijah, people come and listen. They respect him and even the Jewish authorities are aware of his reputation and fear him (rf Mk 1:5, 6:14-15, 20, 11:27-32; Mt 3:5-10, 21:23-26; Lk 3:7-14, 20:1-6). He fearlessly attacks the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees and even confronts Herod the king which eventually leads him to his martyrdom (rf Mk 6:14-29; Mt 14:1-5, 10; Lk 3:19-20).

In humility, John accepts and fully understands his mission. Even though he is renowned and his disciples are growing in numbers, he repeatedly denies that he is the Messiah (rf Mt 3:11,13-14, Mk 1:7-8; Lk 3:15-16; Jn 1:19-20, 26-31). He subordinates himself as only the witness to the Light and the friend of the Bridegroom (rf Jn 1:6-9, 3:27-30), even forfeiting his leadership and invites his disciples to follow Jesus (rf Jn 1:35-39). Spending his entire life preparing for the coming of the Messiah, he humbly recedes into the background when the true Messiah appears (rf Jn 3:25-30).

In poverty and chastity, John leads a life of austerity and asceticism in the wilderness, practising self-denial and renunciation of the world with the single focus of preparing the way for God's Messiah (rf Mk 1:6-7, 2:18). His own virtue of chastity makes him courageously denounce Herod's sins of sensuality that finally ends his life. Though John's life is short and he performs no miracle (rf Jn 10:41), yet his ministry inaugurates a spiritual movement that has great influence long after his death (rf Mk 2:18, Mt 9:14, Lk 5:33). His surviving disciples continue to spread throughout the Mediterranean world, sowing the seed for the New Kingdom (rf Act 18:24-25, 19:1-7).

Being the last in the long line of prophets who predicted Christ (rf Mi 5:2; Deut 18:15-19; Lk 2:30-32; Zech 9:9, 11:12-13, 12:10; Is 9:1-2, 6-7, 7:14, 11:1, 35:5-6, 40:3-5, 52:13-53:12; Jer 31:15, 31 Hosea 11:1; Mal 3:1; Ps 22, 69, 118), John is the only one who has the privilege of seeing Christ in the flesh. John's words of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), echo in every liturgical celebration throughout the ages. Let us remind ourselves that John the Baptist, the only one whose birth and death are celebrated by the Church besides Jesus and Mary, is not just some crazy man with absurd attire and strange diet, who runs wild in the wilderness shouting out loud, but truly is a great man ever born of women (cf Mt 11:11; Lk 7:28).