December 4, 2016
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.” (Mt 3:1)
The bronze doors on the south side of Florence’s baptistery portray scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The one that remains in my memory shows a young boy with staff in hand, leaving home for the desert. We do not know exactly when John went to the wilderness of Judea, or how long he spent there before his public ministry. But we can ponder the mysterious inner stirring which drew him away from the familiar ways of family, trade and conventional religious practice. This was no jumping on a band-wagon – there had been no prophet in Israel within living memory. He must have searched into his people’s history to find those figures that could make some sense of the strange vocation which asserted itself within him. Did he cry out with Elijah’s disciple, “My father! my father! ... May I receive a double portion of your spirit” (2K 2:12, 9)?
When finally he appeared to his people, he was clothed in camel’s hair and a leather belt – an outward sign of his inner formation in the spirit of Elijah. The time in the desert had been set aside for his education by inner desire and outer harshness, much like his predecessor.
Like Elijah, whom God called into barren wastes and fed with cakes baked on hot stones, John, too, was fed on locusts and wild honey, and (did he think of this?) clothed like Adam and Eve in garments of skins (Gn 3:21).
Like Elijah, John learned to strain his ears for the sound of God’s silence.
Like Elijah, who threatened kings and battled false prophets, John spoke against Herod and saved up harsh words for Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers!”
Like Elijah, who called down God’s fire from heaven, John spoke of the ax and the fire, and foresaw a fork-wielding firebrand of a messiah.
The Eastern Church calls him the Forerunner, and before Christ he runs, with booming voice, stern appearance and uncompromising dedication to his mission, to “prepare a people ready for the Lord” (Lk 1:17). John himself is the way he points out, and the preparer of that way. His very appearance and lifestyle cultivate the hearts of those who see and hear him. To see John and to hear him is to know that nothing is of more value than the search for God. He strikes at the heart with ax and fork and consuming fire, which cuts off excessive branches, separates and burns up chaff, and so reveals beneath it all the naked desire for God in the secret heart of each person. Multitudes flock to him and are not offended by him, because they feel his passion, find it engendered in themselves, and long to be cleansed and to follow him in the way of total dedication.
The affection I feel for this man is like that one nurtures for a rough-and-ready sort of person, whose gruff exterior conceals a deep heart. As the bridegroom’s friend, his is a manly sort of love, expressed in strong words and a tough life. But the day will come when something different will be called forth from him by the voice of a surprisingly gentle Messiah.
John, perhaps I love you because I am you. You make a fitting image of one dimension of my inner self: austere, gruff, dedicated, and so I have fallen for you.