John, Herald of the Word

Every June 24 the Church commemorates the birth of St. John the Baptist, who is one of only three persons whose birth is officially celebrated by the Church. The other two are Jesus and his mother Mary. Every other saint is remembered on or near the anniversary of death, the reason being that is the day they entered into eternal life. And while the Church also celebrates the martyrdom of John the Baptist, in addition she recalls his birthday, which is quite an extraordinary exception to the normal practice. This distinction led me to ponder, “Just how is John different from all the other saints that he deserves this extra recognition?”

John, like St. Joseph, straddles that divide between the old and new covenants. He is the last of the prophets, in fact he is the culmination of Old Testament prophecy. He is also the harbinger of the Messiah. John announces this imminent arrival of mankind’s Savior by preaching repentance. John is the great communicator of his day, a voice crying in the wilderness heralding the Christ who will redeem us all. God sent John to herald his own coming into the world and yet, in preparation for this all important task, John does something quite unexpected. He retreats into the desert!

Although born into the priestly class of Levites (son of Zechariah), John does not go to Jerusalem to make a study of the Scriptures among the Jewish scholars of the law. Nor does he go to Athens or Alexandria, great centers of philosophy and learning in the Roman Empire. He makes no attempt to form connections in any of the important centers of civilization. Instead we hear that, “he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation.” (Lk. 1:80) He is as far removed from the established order as one could possibly be; walking the pathway prescribed by the Prophet Isaiah; perfectly content to be considered a nobody.

John also seems to have a very unorthodox system for launching the publicity campaign meant to herald the arrival of history’s culminating figure. Go into a hot, uninviting place and preach repentance to whoever happens by the wayside to listen. Why would anyone want to make such an earthshaking announcement from an arid, deserted wasteland? And yet John, chosen by God to introduces Jesus to the world, launches Christ’s public ministry not in Rome, Athens or Jerusalem but from the Judean wilderness, incredible as it may seem. Through it all John humbly recognizes that he is just a voice, “a voice of one crying in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” (Mk. 1:3)

John is the voice directing all who will listen toward the Word, namely Jesus, the Word of God come to mankind in human flesh. Jesus is the Word and John the Baptist is the voice who proclaims that Word. It is an interesting relationship. The Word pre-exists and in fact give rise to the voice. One is far greater than the other, yet both communicate something essential to the world. John recognizes and proclaims this hierarchy of the Word as superior to the voice by acknowledging, “the One who is coming after me is mightier than I.” (Mt. 3:11)

In the 2,000 years since the voice of John the Baptist was heard in Judea there have been many subsequent voices testifying to that same Word. And despite the fact that the art of communication has improved enormously in the interim, the Word itself remains constant and unchanging even as voices have proliferated and even strayed from the Word. One might say there has been a revolution in communications in fact, beginning with the 15th century invention of printing followed by the invention of the telephone and today’s vast electronic web of digital communications. This explosion of voices has created real challenges for Christianity as new modes of communication give a voice to countless individuals who now have the ability to voice their own messages. But a voice doth not the truth make.

Today we are besieged by many false voices asserting every sort of proposition, and even denying the Word itself. This sheer multiplication of voices has hardly brought humanity any closer to the truth of God. Rather our high speed mass communications only seem to breed more division and confusion than clarity. The profusion of technology has inadvertently created a kind of “Babel effect” which only splinters and divides us along the fault lines of various human opinions. In a kind of reversal from the example of John the Baptist as these various voices, instead of being informed by the Word, seem to be more interested in opposing and upending it.

Many Christians believe that God’s word is to be found exclusively in the Bible. Here it is important to clearly distinguish between the words of Sacred Scripture which are subject to interpretation and the Word of God, made flesh in the person of Christ. While the Bible is unquestionably the word of God, as expressed through various human agents, Jesus is the Word of God, characterized in the Greek as Logos. And while the teaching and study of the Scriptures is undoubtedly central to the Church’s ministry, that alone cannot fully communicate the Word of God to the faithful because that same Word, Logos, is not just a text or a doctrine, it is a person. Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word, the Logos through whom all creation has its being.

One cannot communicate such a vast, sublime reality simply through a written text. Besides, over the span of centuries, texts may become corrupted and words can change their meaning. The words of Scripture, in fact, have frequently been subjected to various interpretations by many different voices throughout the ages. How then are people today going to recognize the true Word, Logos, just as John was able to do? Simple. Because Jesus, that same Word of God, provided a means to communicate himself to us in a direct, corporeal way that transcends Biblical texts. That means of communication is found in the Eucharist which, although humanly incomprehensible, is beautifully simple and direct, leaving no room for interpretation or error because the Word of God enters directly into one’s heart. The difference between these two modes of communication (Biblical and Eucharistic) is like comparing 25,000 year old cave art to the high speed internet.

The Eucharist is the most perfect form of communication in existence. It is, in fact, a Divine Communion. After all, it is God himself. And even in our loud, modern culture God communicates his perfect Word to us by communing with each believer through a small white wafer and a drop of consecrated wine, so elegant in their simplicity. That Eucharistic Word in turn infuses and activates our own voice in the manner of John. We cannot possibly hope to become voices of truth, even within our own families, unless God first implants his Word in the heart. Like John, our voices must first be formed and guided by the Word.

John spent many years in the desert preparing for his mission before going public. His prophetic message was first formed in the silence of his heart, because that is where the Word of God enters in to enlighten the mind and quietly prepare one to become a voice of truth. The human voice, which was designed to communicate truth, is but a faint reflection of that Word. But can one really hear and absorb the Word amid all the noisy hubbub of modern life, especially when we are constantly attached to our electronic tethers? We too need some spiritual desert where we can retreat and listen as God’s Word infiltrates our heart and consciousness. Otherwise worldly external voices will drown out the eternal Word in our soul. Yet even by his death John proves that the Word is mightier than any worldly power and so its power must inform and direct the voice of any who would leave the desert and go out to proclaim the truth.

We will find that fruitful desert in the recesses of our own heart when we commune directly with the Word of God in the Blessed Sacrament. It is in that divine communion that we find our own voices just as John the Baptist found his in the Jordan wilderness. And while God makes room for many voices to be heard, there is still only one true Word. Every human being has been given a voice and, like John the Baptist, we are charged with using that voice to give witness to the truth, each in his own way. That does not necessarily mean voicing our opinions in the New York Times or on the internet. Recall that John raised his voice, not in the centers of ancient culture, but in the wilderness, and there is a good lesson in that. The people came out to John in the desert because he spoke the truth.

The Word was a powerful inducement to conversion then just as the Eucharist today IS that very same Word heralded by John the Baptist 2,000 years ago, and likewise calling us to conversion. We may not have a Jordan wilderness to escape into to commune with God, but we have something far better: a real physical and spiritual Communion with the Word that has the power to form and transform each one of us radically. Like John we are called to greet the Word made Flesh in the flesh because that is what the Eucharist intends and makes possible. That same Word will instill in us a new and clearer voice so that we too can shout like the Baptist, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Mk. 1:13) Over time the Eucharistic Word silently instructs one in the deep humility of John the Baptist who, once he had served his purpose, realized that his voice must soon be silenced in order to make way for someone much greater. Therefore, with John, we too are called by that same Word to confess in humble voice, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:30)

Francis J. Pierson

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