JOHN THE BAPTIST:
THE ONE WHO KNEW HIS SPACE
One of the persons that the Liturgy of the Word during the season of Advent draws our attention to is John the Baptist. Evangelist Mark presents John the Baptist as a person who resisted the temptation to be more than himself (in fact all the Gospels): “In the course of his preaching John the Baptist said, ‘After me is coming someone who is more powerful than me, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ (Mk 1:7, 8). From the narrative of Mark, there are three qualities that stand out in John the Baptist: his simplicity, humility and clear understanding of the purpose of his life. These are perhaps virtues that we too are invited to grow in as we look forward to the coming of Christ.
Simplicity: Dressed for the journey
In spite of the fact that the Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and often Mark goes about his narratives in a hurried manner, he describes the physical appearance of John the Baptist in some detail. “John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6). There are different levels of meanings here. At one level there are clear parallels to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). His clothing was a camel’s hair garment as that of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8); and his food was similar to the one that was supplied by the desert: locusts (Lev. 11:22) and wild honey (Ps. 81:16).
At another level, and not unrelated to the first level, John’s clothing reiterates his role as a prophet. And the food habit portrays a man who does not have time to settle down, cultivate, and cook his food. He is on the move. He is on a journey. That image brings out his message – detachment and repentance, and his mission – to be a forerunner.
In any case, John the Baptist was the message. The medium is the message! It is easier to preach a message, but is more challenging to be the message. A good lesson for the TV evangelists of today towards simplicity and detachment of travelling light!
Humility: The right perspective of the self
Some of us are tempted to be more than what we are meant to be. We push ourselves too much; we fight; and we get frustrated. John the Baptist didn’t want to be more than the “voice crying out in the wilderness” (Mk 1:3); he had chances to declare himself as the messiah (Lk 3:15. He had to accept his own limitations: for instance, he could not perform miracles (Jn 10:41). In the Gospel of John, “when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John declared, he did not deny but declared, ‘I am not the Christ’…I am, as Isaiah prophesied: A voice of one that cries in the desert: Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight” (Jn 1:19-22).
In Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is very clear about his status: “After me is coming someone who is more powerful than me, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals” (Mk 1:7). John has no reason to hide that his own rituals are only a shadow of the real one that is soon to come: “I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8).
In short, John the Baptist offers a good definition of humility: to have a right perspective of the self, and not to overestimate one’s own worth. He must have been a satisfied person. John stands out as one who was satisfied with what he possessed, very at home with what he thought he was, and gratified with his own ministry. The element that added gratification was the clarity of his mission and a sense of purpose.
Purpose: Clear understanding of his mission
Some time back, a lady walked into my office. She drove a big car; she was well dressed. She had a good job, she said. She must have been in her late twenties. She was in a steady relationship. Everything was set for a happy life. But as she settled down, she said, she was not happy in her life. What was wrong, I wondered. Our continued conversation revealed that she was not in the right place. The good job was not what her heart was wanting. She was dealing with papers in her office, but her heart wanted a context where she could directly interact with people. Our happiness and wellbeing seem to be directly correlated to finding the right space in the universe.
John the Baptist had a right understanding of his role in history. Even before his birth, and in his life and death he went on to live the mission for which he was born on the face of the earth. When John was born his father prophesied, “And you, little child … you will go before the Lord to prepare a way for him, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk 1:76-77). And that is exactly what John the Baptist went on to fulfil in his life. When Jesus would appear on the scene he would point out Jesus as the Lamb of God (Jn 1:36), and agrees to exit (Jn 3:30). Even though his life would end in an untimely death (Mt 14:1-12), that death itself was in fulfilment of why he was born on the face of the earth.
The greatest challenge in our own life is in finding our space in the universe. We call this, ‘Will of God’. I would call it, the dream that God has for us. God created us in a unique way for a unique purpose. There is a unique space in the universe for each one of us. If I do not fill that space I would leave a vacuum in the history of the universe. On the other hand, our own happiness and wellbeing consists in finding that space and meaningfully filling it. Often in our prayers we ask God to give us this and give us that. Essentially we need to listen to God – listen to his dreams for us. When our desire meets with the desire that God has for us, it is like the whole universe moves for us. We experience fulfilment, gratification and wellbeing.
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.