Tuesday, January 16, 2018

John the Baptist

John appears. That is how Mark puts it. On the berm of the promised land and at the verge of a new covenant, one clothed in camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist, appears by the waters of the Jordan. St. Mark, using the words of Isaiah, describes him as a voice. The voice of one crying out, the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, a voice in harmony with all the prophetic voices preceding him. John the Baptist reaches Israel like that final reverberation of one long prophetic cry heralding the coming Savior.

And like the prophets before him, he prophesizes not only in word but also in deed. Thus, he appears in the wilderness not only as a voice preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins but also as a man baptizing. For, in that wilderness, that stony, barren country, there flowed a river sourced at the foot of Mt. Hermon. The inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea would, therefore, leave their homes to travel the desolate declivity, confess their sins, and be washed by John in the Jordan’s rushing waters. Dunked, dipped or plunged, they were cleansed, symbolically purified by the prophetic gesture. And he says as much: I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.

The reference is to Christ: the one stronger than John who is to come after John. For what John is able to do with water, Jesus will do with the Holy Spirit. What in John is symbolized, Christ will actualize. Later at the end of the great feast in Jerusalem as the Jews are praying for autumn rains, Jesus will stand among them and this time it will be he who is crying out saying: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. And out of his heart, his gut, his innermost self will flow rivers of living water. And lest we fail to read the symbol, the Evangelist informs us that he is, in fact, speaking of the Spirit. It is for the baptism of Jesus, then, that John prepares those who go out to meet him, a baptism by which we are united to God through his Spirit.

The Baptist thus appears—the verb itself evokes temperance—as an expiring voice anticipating God’s eternal Word, a prophet of symbolic action sent to prepare Israel for the Savior’s definitive action. For, while the meandering waters of the Jordan ultimately run into the Dead Sea, the Christ who cleanses with water and Spirit, washes both body and soul with living waters that flow unto eternity.

+ Br. Joseph Michael Fino, CFR
Yonkers, NY
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