Few characters in the Bible, indeed in all of literature, are more intriguing than John the Baptist. From his mother’s womb to his beheading, John embodied a commitment to the truth and to conversion, making him the greatest of all the prophets, as he prepared the way for God’s Son by his constant calls to repentance. Although John served as a bridge between the two testaments, he was no fence-sitter and thus bravely jumped into the world of the new covenant which would eventually be sealed in Christ’s Blood.
In recent years, we have heard the words “prophet” and “prophetic” bandied about quite a bit in certain ecclesiastical circles, all too often to describe those who rebel against lawful Church authority. The true prophet, however, does not stand against the Church but against a culture which has lost its identification with a divine perspective on reality. The classical prophet was not a forerunner of Madame Zelda on the boardwalk, nor a hostage to the left wing of the Democratic Party. John the Baptist, then, was a man so sensitive to God’s will and Law that he stood head and shoulders over the mass of humanity in his courage and conviction. He proclaimed his message (which was really God’s message) to great and small alike, so that prostitutes heard and accepted his invitation to reform their lives while the mighty Herod, at the instigation of Salome, lopped off his head for daring to challenge his immorality.
It is easy to condemn “social sin” and “the sinful structures of society”; it is much harder to see sin and to name it in individual persons. To rage against multi-national corporations doesn’t take much courage; for a bishop to warn a governor that he risks going to Hell for his part in the killing of unborn babies, ah, then one finds a worthy successor of John the Baptist. Silence bespeaks expediency, complicity, and cowardice, and John the Baptist never kept silent, for even in the womb he announced the truth of Christ (cf. Lk 1:44). He was bold and even brash when confronting the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (“You brood of vipers” [Lk 3:7]), like a churchman today who reminds people that they cannot take refuge in Sunday Mass attendance while remaining attached to sins of materialism, fornication, artificial contraception, and the like. Genuine prophets lash out against false religious security out of a love for the truth, but also out of a love for the individual who has allowed himself to become anesthetized by a false brand of religion. Granted, John the Baptist wasn’t the type of fellow to be invited as religious window-dressing at a fashionable cocktail party. But he wasn’t interested in making people enjoy transient parties; he was intent on preparing people for the eternal banquet of the Kingdom.
Two strange sayings in connection with John the Baptist are attributed to Our Lord in the Gospels. The first asserts that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Mt 11:12). What could Jesus have meant? Exegetes and preachers have offered some ingenious interpretations over the centuries, but the one which has the most appeal for me is the suggestion that one must be passionate about God’s reign over humanity – the lukewarm and the disinterested, objective third parties do not inherit the Kingdom – only those committed enough to make of it a life-or-death matter. There is no free ride to the Kingdom; Bonhoffer referred to “the cost of discipleship.” If it cost John the Baptist his head, can we expect to get off scot-free? Unrealistic at best, presumptuous at worst. But in our day and age, passion for religion is labeled fanaticism, rigidity, and psychosis – including by ecclesiastical leaders who are apparently embarrassed by those who hold lesser places in the Church, but with greater conviction. Well, maybe that’s a problem of the age. At any rate, passion for religion or commitment to the truth are just alternative expressions for the love of God. And if God is real, then He’s not only worth living for; He’s also worth dying for. So, yes, the violent like John the Baptist enter the Kingdom.
Secondly, Jesus declares that as great as John the Baptist was, anyone born into the Kingdom is greater than he (cf. Mt 11:11). Like Moses in many ways, the Baptist saw the Kingdom as closely as possible without fully experiencing it this side of the grave. No Church, no Baptism, no Eucharist, no Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit for John. He saluted salvation from some distance and so had to wait for eternity. Jesus is not downgrading John the Baptist as much as He is trying to make us aware of the knowledge and identity given to us once the Kingdom broke into human affairs through His paschal mystery. We, insignificant and unknown people, are greater than John the Baptist because of what God has done with us, for us and in us through His beloved Son. We are a purchased people. We have been given the knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom. We know Jesus Christ and recognize ourselves as members of His mystical Body, the Church. “Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Mt 13:17). Indeed, as the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil puts it, “Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed.” Greater than John the Baptist? What a humbling and exalted thought at one and the same time! Humbling, once we realize that this is all God’s work and not ours. Exalted, because we know that St. Augustine was right when he exclaimed, “God became man that men might become gods.”
Jesus also made one other interesting comment about John – and his audience. He was a light burning brightly in whom the people delighted for a while (cf. Jn 5:35). Two lessons are worth drawing out here: First, a candle does its job by burning itself out. Similarly, the preaching and the living out of the Gospel are activities which call for the investment of one’s whole personality. When the Gospel has been timidly preached, it can never be fiercely lived. Would-be prophets have to offer a light which is bright, clear and constant; only then will people be able and willing to walk by its light. Second, people rejoiced in John’s message for a time. Their enthusiasm was short-lived because he began to hit home. Fulton J. Sheen used to remark that one generally becomes a popular preacher by talking about the sins one’s people don’t commit. Thus comes the frequent line after Sunday Mass, “Boy, you sure told them, Father!” Catholics should become nervous if the New York Times starts praising popes and bishops because, in all likelihood, it will not be that the Times is becoming Christian but that the hierarchs are becoming worldly. Committed believers have to be ready to accept the Gospel’s challenge to reform every day and in every area of their lives. When we say, “Jesus is Lord,” we cannot carve out areas of existence exempt from His Lordship.
John knew this as a preacher, but he learned it first by being a penitent. What held everything together for the Baptist was a permanent attitude of penance. He never hesitated to demand austerity in his listeners because he lived it himself, manifested even (or perhaps especially) in his garb and in his diet (cf. Mt 3:4). When a nun in lay clothes and earrings lectures on social justice, it rings just a bit hollow since one can logically ask why she doesn’t get rid of the secular outfits, give the money to the poor, and live as a public witness of her message even in the silent sermons of her habited presence. When a priest condemns the lifestyles of the rich and famous, his talk is less than convincing to a congregation which knows that he frequents the very same places as the rich and famous. When parishioners in suburbia call for pottery chalices and burlap vestments to bring about a Church of the simple and poor, one can only be either amused or revolted at the crystal and damask on their own dining room tables.
Jesus said John was violent; that he was a light. But He also said we are greater than he. The study of his character and a whole-hearted living of the Advent season can make that saying of the Lord come true as well.