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The last Prophet or the first Saint?

Was he a forerunner or a follower, or both?
How can you be both?

I must admit that I had never really thought before of the paradox involved in applying these various titles to John the Baptist. Even if I had heard them mentioned with his name, I had never probed the depth of their meanings and I certainly had never grasped the theological implications of these titles but, within the first few pages of Prof. Burke's book, I was intrigued, I was fascinated and I was hooked!

The question of knowing who John really was, of understanding his unique (and un-repeatable) position in the economy of salvation is very methodically - and lovingly - answered by Prof. Burke. With constant references to Scriptures, using often a verse-by-verse analysis of the Gospels, with the use of a wide variety of sources, historical, artistic and cultural, Prof. Burke peels off layers after layers of John's life and John's position in relation to Jesus.

The very specific mission entrusted to John as the bridge from the Old to the New testament.

Although I was familiar with most of the amazing details of John's life, from the eccentric "locust and honey" diet to the long lines of people marching into the Jordan for his baptism by water, from his very first jumping act (funny and efficient too!) in Elizabeth's womb screaming: "It's him! It's him!" to his very last dramatic (and horrific) ending on a bloody plate, I had not understood yet the role assigned to this enigmatic figure, to this cousin of Jesus. Prof. Burke greatly helped me connect the dots and flesh out the role given to John by God, as the "boundary marker of the ages who is both a prophet and a participant in the new eschatological age, and whose role as both forerunner and follower of Christ accounts for his high reputation in later Christianity, an exalted reputation exceeded only by Mary".

The call to repentance;
the witness to the Trinity.

In the first chapter, Prof. Burke lists systematically the parallel elements between John and Jesus, in Luke's Gospel and in the Old Testament's prophecies. In the subsequent chapters, he tells us of the importance (and contradictory) influence of the desert; of the originality (and limits) of the baptism that John offered; and of his great ability as a preacher to call to repentance, and of his very first witnessing to the Trinity. Those are very rich chapters and anyone who loves studying Scripture will be delighted to read them.

In the process of studying every angle of John the Baptist life and mission, Prof. Burke has no problem demolishing some of the contemporary interpretations of John as "only a figure of Second Temple Judaism". He said that "for over two centuries now some scholars have mounted a campaign to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. Now they are engaged in an effort to separate the John of history from the Baptist and the forerunner of faith"… and in doing so, they "miss his significance entirely both in the Gospels and in Christian history." He analyses in which way John is close to the Essenes and in which way John is clearly different from them. He reviews all the accounts of Jesus' own baptism very carefully and explores the wider meaning of this extraordinary event. When I have listened, at Mass, to the readings about this Trinitarian moment, I always wondered about this particular mystery, feeling that there is more to it than I can grasp… Prof. Burke explains the distinctiveness of "the Baptist" title itself, the newness of this rite, the conversion that it implies and its symbolization of an "inner moral cleansing achieved through prior repentance and that constituted initiation in a new community … as preparation for the end time".

In later chapters, Prof. Burke investigates John the Baptist in the traditions of the East and of the West and how each tradition "gives its own distinctive witness to John". In the last two chapters of the book, he recaps thoroughly all the titles and facets of John the Baptist. Then he links them to our times, saying how needed is his call to repentance.

John is much needed in our own times.

John's dedication to a life of ascetics and fasting would seem strange to modern man. His call to repentance and to, dare I say the word, "mortification", rings peculiar to our modern ears. The hair shirt of Opus Dei was greatly mocked in the media recently, and mortifications, in general, have become taboo for most people nowadays. But, what I find interesting is that it is the very same people cringing at the call to repentance and mortifications that I see running miles after miles very doggedly on their treadmill, or piercing and tattooing more and more parts of their bodies, or constantly experimenting with all the elaborate and frantic diets of our age… Whether it is extreme physical exercises or highly unusual habits, all of these could be called various forms of mortifications but what makes them acceptable to our age is that they are directed toward "the self" and not "toward God"… Isn't this interesting?

Prof. Burke says that "John proclaims to his hearers the need for repentance and the imminence of the coming judgment… John's repentance is first a turning away from sin, though it is not confined to this. The first step requires the recognition of our sins and the sorrow for their great harm. The unbridgeable chasm between the divine and the human can only be crossed by repentance, for that is the basis for us to live again in God's love. The second requirement is the performance of good works. …he would insist that repentance is an act that can never be finished. It must become a constant state of the soul, if we are to flee the wrath to come. It is not enough to sin no more, it is necessary to continue doing good works, to share our riches with the poor."

What a beautiful and appropriate spiritual program for any time but especially for our time!

I personally found that the sense of "imminent crises" in John's times is very relevant to our own times. The sense that we live in a special moment in history and that any one of our own act can tip the balance one way or the other brings a sense of urgency to our own role as Christians in the world.

Or so I feel.

John's death unfolds itself in such an amazing and dramatic sequence of events that, I myself, recoil inside whenever I hear about it. But, as I was reading this book, an additional layer of tension came over me as I realized that, up until recently, I had never heard much about contemporary "decapitations" but all this has now been changed thanks to terrorism and such gruesome deaths are now part of our nightly news …. There is another uncomfortable parallel to be drawn between our times and John's times and it is regarding the cruelty of the powerful leaders and the political scheming around them. I was reminded of this as I read the chapter on the matching descriptions of the suffering and death of John and the suffering and death of Jesus. After finishing this book, I felt that I will never look at John the Baptist in a superficial manner again. I definitively felt I grew closer to him as I turned the pages and I be-friended him along the way. I was thankful for the fact that Prof. Burke finished his book with a prayer, a litany to John titles, because that is the proper way to finish, by invoking John's help since he is both the last Prophet and the first Saint, the forerunner and the follower, the chosen messenger of God.

Saint John the Baptist, pray for us!

The one criticism about this book that I would venture is the fact that the only color picture was on the book cover. Many pieces of art or architecture have been created to illustrate moments of John's life. Many were mentioned in this book but only got small black and white illustrations - or even none at all (as for the Deisis) - and that is a pity. I am hoping that a future hard-cover copy of this book will include big beautiful color illustrations since it is true that John the Baptist has inspired many artists. In the meantime, I have to say that the beautiful young brooding man on the book-cover is very attractive but that I have no idea who he is. He certainly could not possibly be John, he looks too healthy and well fed and his skin is too soft and lovely! Since John was either fasting in the desert or camping by the Jordan banks or later confined to a jail cell, I definitively picture him more as a skinny and fiery figure, possibly disheveled but certainly with a very powerful and mesmerizing voice. But I could be wrong…. Maybe that is one more paradoxical aspect of this amazing Saint!

Copyright ©2006 Michele Szekely



JOHN THE BAPTIST, Prophet and Disciple
by Alexander J. Burke, Jr.
Publisher: "St Anthony Messenger Press" click here

 


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