The honors and formalities afforded the Reverend Billy Graham after his death were a refreshing religious break from the secularism that pervades today’s Western society. Tributes offered in the rotunda of the US capital building caused everyone to acknowledge, either out of conviction or out of courtesy, the existence of another world, a spiritual realm, a transcendent reality that occasionally pierces the clouds of disbelief or weakened belief that pervade so much of today’s world. Recently Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Mother Angelica from the Eternal Word Network along with Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen a generation ago were dominant religious figures that the world, perhaps willingly, perhaps wisely, acknowledged as having something worthwhile to ponder. St. John the Baptist, whose solemnity will be celebrated this coming Sunday, clearly fits into this category of honored celebrity of his day — even more so than Jesus Christ, it might be noted.
The New Testament recalls the names of the Baptist’s parents, Zachary and Elizabeth. The parents of Mary, for all her excellence, are never mentioned. Having received supernatural grace even in his mother’s womb, the Baptist gave himself over to a secluded and dedicated religious life from his early years. He possibly belonged to a Jewish religious cult known as the Essenes who embraced a pious life of prayer and fasting in the Judean desert. He lived simply on “locusts and wild honey,” attired himself in a camel-hair garment, and eventually attracted a number of disciples, some of whom later followed Jesus Christ. St. John eventually discerned that it was his Divine calling to herald the imminent arrival of Jesus Christ as messiah by preaching “a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” The Baptist’s riverside rituals drew vast crowds, including tax-collectors and soldiers. Even a number of Temple priests were attracted to St. John’s Jordan ministry and accepted his baptism. Jesus’ popularity never penetrated the Temple precincts. The Baptist further had access to the King’s ear, another privilege never accorded to Jesus Christ. “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man… When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” Recall also that, unlike Jesus, “John performed no sign,” as a festival crowd observed. So the Baptist’s fame was strictly the result of his words. St. John’s loyal disciples took the trouble to bury him after his beheading, a duty avoided by Jesus’ apostles. St. John is revered as a major religious figure in the Christian, Islamic, Baha’i and Manaeian faiths. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions the Baptist. And of course Jesus Christ himself gave superlative acknowledgment to his prophet cousin when he observed, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”
Although St. John the Baptist might have enjoyed celebrity status in the minds and on the lips of his contemporaries, the prophet himself was an exemplar of humility. At the height of his popularity, St. John declared openly before the crowds and before the officials who cheered him, “the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” And recall that in chapter one of the Fourth Gospel account, the Baptist is the first to acknowledge the divinity of Christ: “Now I have seen and have testified that he is the Son of God.” These were no small admissions for someone at the summit of his career.
Just as the Baptist himself acknowledged his unworthiness when encountering Christ, his message to the masses was that all humanity has to admit its flawed status and welcome Christ as the only balm for the sin sick soul. Repentance and conversion were the first steps. He told the crowds to share their food with the poor, and the tax-collectors to be honest, and the soldiers not to bully. Then he introduced his followers to the person of Jesus: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The recognition and acceptance of Jesus as the Spirit-filled prophet, Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus as the Lamb of God, and, most of all, Jesus as the Son of God “of whose fullness we have all received,” was the ultimate goal of John’s preaching.
Repentance and renewal are still the basic message of the Christian Gospel. Mankind must admit all unsound ways — pride, greed, lust, anger. And then the believer must accept Jesus Christ as the sole remedy that will bring healing and health to the soul. This Jesus is no longer met on the banks of the Jordan or along the roadways of Galilee. Now Jesus is encountered through his Church — through the Scriptures, through the sacraments, through prayer, through fellow believers and through charity. Repent! For indeed, through Christ, the Kingdom of heaven is indeed at hand!