What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name, “St. John the Baptist”? I usually think of a mysterious, bold figure emerging from the desert to proclaim and to preach. “In those days John the Baptist appeared,” the Gospel of Matthew states, “in the desert of Judea saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!’” (Mt 3:1-2).
The Gospel of Luke is unique in its detailed description of John’s family, conception and first contact with his cousin, Jesus. His parents, the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth, the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary, were “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (Lk 1:6). But they were unable to have a child, and they were “advanced in years.”
Luke writes of how Zechariah, fulfilling his priestly duties, was startled by the appearance of an angel announcing that Elizabeth would conceive and have a son. This son, the messenger said, would do great things for God, being “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:10-17).
This is a foreshadowing of what soon happened to Mary, who likewise was surprised by the angel Gabriel, who announced that she would have a son who “will be called Son of the Most High … ” (Lk 1:26-34).
The similarities are important; they also reveal essential differences. Zechariah, confronted with the astounding message, struggled to believe, saying, “How shall I know this?” He was then struck mute because, the angel said, “You did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time” (Lk 1:18-20).
Mary also asked a question, but in wonder, not doubt: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” When told that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, Mary’s response was one of quiet, calm faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:33-38).
The contrast is important: Zechariah — a righteous man undoubtedly familiar with the miraculous pregnancies of Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah and others — doubted God would or could overcome natural limitations. Mary — a righteous maiden who also was certainly very familiar with the Jewish Scriptures — accepted the message with perfect faith.
John the Baptist was, according to his cousin, a prophet and “more than a prophet”; of those “born of women,” Jesus declared, “no one is greater than John.” Yet, he added, “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Lk 7:24-28). John was the last of a long line of prophets who spoke and suffered for the Lord. His birth, life and martyrdom were closely connected with the work of the Holy Spirit. He leapt in the womb after recognizing his Lord’s presence (Lk 1:41).
In many of the ancient prayers and hymns about John the Baptist, the focus turns from John’s proclamation to what was proclaimed to him. “Unto you was revealed, O prophet, the mystery of the one essence of the Godhead in three consubstantial persons,” declares one prayer.
Another states: “To you the mystery of the Trinity was revealed; and to you we sing, honoring your divine festival.” This is why John eventually stated, in profound humility: “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.