Prepare the Way of the Lord: Life Lessons from St. John the Baptist
On June 24, the Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. For many of us, it is a feast day that we might notice in passing but not think about much further. Its importance, however, proves to be deeply significant in the story of salvation history and in the life of the Church. When we think of St. John the Baptist, we typically recall that he was a cousin of Jesus as well as a prophet and forerunner of Jesus as the Messiah. There are a number of additional things upon which we can reflect as the Nativity of St. John the Baptist approaches.
Why Do We Celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist?
Upon looking into this feast day a bit further, one of the first things we notice is the fact that John the Baptist’s feast is celebrated not on the day of his death, but rather on the day of his birth. This is unusual, as most saints are commemorated on the days of their deaths. This is because death marks entry into true and eternal life, so the Church considers it most fitting that they are the dates that would be noted in the liturgical calendar. There are two exceptions to this rule: the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. We can explain the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary fairly easily, as it is now Catholic doctrine that Mary was conceived and thus born cleansed of the stain of original sin. With that in mind, we can see how Mary entered the world in an already perfect state, so it is fitting that her birthday is the day that is commemorated.
Explaining John the Baptist’s position in this twofold group is somewhat murkier and more complex. The Church does not specifically say that John the Baptist was born without original sin; however, neither is the idea dismissed. (Church teaching still maintains that Jesus and Mary are the only two to have ever been conceived without original sin.) If we read the Biblical account of Mary meeting her cousin Elizabeth, each carrying her child in the womb, we see it written: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit….” Many saints and Catholic scholars throughout history have interpreted this passage to mean that John was baptized by Jesus in the womb and cleansed of original sin, as the presence of sin is incompatible with an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This would mean that even though John had not been conceived without sin, there is a possibility that he would have been cleansed of it in the womb by his encounter with Jesus and subsequently born without it. This places John the Baptist in an extremely important and unique position in salvation history, and can give us a much deeper appreciation for the special life of this great saint.
“Prepare the Way of the Lord”
St. John the Baptist is mentioned in all four of the Gospels, but it is important to remember that he is mentioned, though not by name, many years prior in the Old Testament. In the Book of Isaiah, there is a passage that foreshadows the life of John: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Strikingly, this passage is recalled after John’s birth by his father, Zechariah. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, after Zechariah regains his speech, he prays: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Thus we see a strong parallel here between Jesus and John: we know that in the life of Jesus, the Old Law is fulfilled in the New Law, and the prophecies contained within the Old Testament are fulfilled in the life of Jesus as recalled in the New Testament. Similarly, the prophecy about one preparing the way for Jesus is fulfilled in the life of John.
It can be difficult to see how John’s life – one of such monumental importance – can be reflected in our own lives. While certainly none of us are called to the same vocation or life as John the Baptist, it is important not to forget that each of us still has our own specific calling to which we must respond. Each of our vocations will not be fulfilled in the same way that John the Baptist fulfilled his vocation and the prophecies concerning him, but we can still take note of his willingness to humble himself and serve the Lord through the actions of his daily life.
Although we do not have many recorded words of John, through what we know about his life, it is clear that he dedicated his whole being to preaching the truth of Jesus and of Christianity. Even in the time before he was actively in a position of public ministry, he was spending time in the desert in solitude, preparing himself to prepare the way of the Lord. This is something that all of us can imitate, in a way. We can relate all we do to fulfilling both our collective vocation as followers of Christ and the individual vocations specific to our persons.
A Great Reward in Heaven
Another way in which we can learn from the life of John the Baptist is by considering the concepts of earthly rewards versus heavenly rewards. If we turn to the Gospel of Matthew, we see the ways in which John acted with heaven in mind, rather than the admiration of men. Two passages are relevant to John’s life, one concerning prayer and the other concerning earthly possessions. The first reads: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The second discusses earthly treasures and reads thus: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” John the Baptist is an excellent example of both of these passages.
With reference to the first passage, we recall that John spent his time before public ministry in the desert in solitude. He spent this time not loudly announcing himself as a prophet or a forerunner of the Messiah, but rather seeking to form himself into a vessel for the Word of God. He spent his life on earth ultimately with little acknowledgement for the great work to which he was giving his life. Though we are not called to the same kind of ministry as John, we can learn from this to prioritize solitude and quiet prayer as we too prepare to constantly give our lives in service of God.
With reference to the second passage, we can recall John’s asceticism and consider how to incorporate something similar in our lives. It is said that John ate locusts and wild honey and wore clothing made of camels’ hair. While we would not make these exact decisions for ourselves in the modern-day world, there are always opportunities for us to similarly deny ourselves earthly luxuries in pursuit of holiness.
Ultimately, the life of St. John the Baptist can at first seem unattainable and difficult to learn from. If we look more closely, however, we can see that there is always the opportunity to live according to the will of God and to seek to live out our own vocations to the best of our ability. St. John the Baptist, pray for us!