The Encore of St. John the Baptist

The revelation of Jesus as Messiah is the theme of today’s Gospel — and so we take another look at St. John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus Christ.

Dieric Bouts, “St. John the Baptist,” ca. 1463
Dieric Bouts, “St. John the Baptist,” ca. 1463 (photo: Public Domain)

We usually think of St. John the Baptist as an Advent figure but here he is, in today’s Gospel, doing what he always does: pointing to Christ. The first weeks in Ordinary Time each year are usually taken up with Jesus selecting his Apostles, which we should see next week. 

But this year is a little different. John the Baptist usually makes an encore just before Ordinary Time, on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus which, in the United States, usually falls on the Sunday after Epiphany. But because Christmas fell on a Sunday, Advent was 28 days, the longest it could possibly be. In years when the Sunday-transferred Epiphany falls on Jan. 8, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus then falls immediately the next day and then Ordinary Time starts. (This would not happen if the U.S. Bishops had not unanchored the Epiphany from its traditional date — Jan. 6 — in order to transfer it to a Sunday).

So, although 2023 loses the Sunday Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, the core of its message — the revelation of Jesus Christ as the One sent by God — is the theme of today’s Gospel. And so we take another look at St. John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Testament and the herald of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Gospel seems to suggest some John may have been uncertain at first about whom Jesus was. We encountered this same uncertainty on the Third Sunday of Advent, when the Gospel spoke of John sending his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One?” Jesus answered by having John’s disciples relay what they saw: “the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk” — all Messianic signs that would have given John assurance of Jesus’ Identity.

John baptized as a sign of repentance, perhaps not unlike our receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday as a sign of our resolve to struggle against sin. John admits he did this to “make known in Israel” the preexistent One, the One “who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me,” i.e., the Messiah. In the human order, John was Jesus’ senior cousin by six months, but John clearly recognizes Jesus’ Identity surpasses the purely human. “I have seen and testified he is the Son of God.”

John sees and testifies as a result of obedience to the “One who sent me to baptize” informing him that “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” That was the work of the expected Messiah. Jesus is that Messiah.

Remember that Matthew is writing to Jewish converts to Christianity, so he is intent on showing that Jesus is, in fact, the fulfillment of what Israel expected, the consummation of Israel’s hopes. That Israel’s Messianic hopes in Jesus’ day had turned into political expectations does not change God’s plans: man’s problem that needed fixing, almost from the creation of the world, was freedom from evil, not freedom from today’s would-be ruler, dictator, emperor or world order. Those latter have all come and gone. But what has consistently plagued man is sin and he cannot escape that spiritual pandemic by his own resources.

Matthew not only tells his Jewish listeners that Jesus is the fulfillment of their expectations, but he corrects their Messianic expectations to align them with God’s. John the Baptist says nothing in today’s Gospel about Rome or Jerusalem, but he does speak about “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and of the One coming “to baptize with the Holy Spirit” for the remission of sins. Remember the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter? The first thing Jesus does after his Resurrection is to commission his Apostles to forgive sins. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men sins, they are forgiven; if you hold them bound, they are held bound” (John 20:22-23). 

Jesus’ Kingdom — which we celebrate on the Sunday of the last week in Ordinary Time — is “a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace” (Preface). That’s what the Messiah brings, and that is what the Baptist is confessing when he speaks of whom Jesus is and what his Mission is. 

Two other points of commonality between John and us deserve comment. First, the Baptist admits he, as a prophet, awaited God’s sign as to the identity of this coming Messiah. Our ability to acknowledge and confess Jesus is God’s gift and initiative, his grace. St. Paul reminds us that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3) — neither John the Baptist nor you nor me. Our confession of faith is God’s illumination, to which we must be open, ready — as the Responsorial Psalm acknowledges — to do his will. The Holy Spirit — the Spirit Jesus baptizes in — is the Spirit that enlightens us to acknowledge Jesus’ identity.

Second, the Baptist does not get this information merely for his own edification. John baptized so that the One coming “might be made known to Israel.” John concludes Gospel by saying he has “seen and testified” to Jesus.

Our awareness of Jesus’ identity is not our private preserve: like John, we are called to be prophets. By virtue of our sacramental baptism, we share in Jesus’ threefold office: priest, prophet and king. We are prophets whenever we share the Truth … because Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). That may be the Truth of our faith in Jesus or of our faith in what Jesus has revealed about God’s design for humanity — a design under severe challenge in today’s world.

The fact that, next Sunday, will also mark the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, with many Americans lamenting the demise of that barbaric ruling, shows just how much the world needs prophets who speak truth, not false prophets who dare label their mendacity “God’s Word.” (Are you joining the March for Life on Friday, Jan. 20?)

So, we’re off to a great start in Ordinary Time: knowing who Jesus is and why he came can lead us to understand why he begins to pick an apostolic college to continue that saving work. 

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by the 15th-century Netherlandish painter, Dieric Bouts. The oil painting dates from about 1462-64, and belongs to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.

The River Jordan divides the painting. Crossing the Jordan spiritually is as decisive as its physical crossing by the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership to end the Exile and take possession of the Holy Land. The picture provides an almost three-dimensional focus: Jesus is rightly in the forefront, going forward to his mission. John, who is behind him, identifies him with his finger as “the Lamb of God.”

Even as Jesus moves forward beyond John, John holds the shoulder of another disciple, to whom he is pointing out the Messiah. That disciple, dressed in a manner contemporaneous to Bouts rather than Jesus and John, was probably the sponsor of the painting. It could have been one of John’s disciples, whom the Gospels tell us began to follow Jesus instead. It could be you or me, under John’s mentorship, directed to follow “the Lamb of God.” John’s and the disciple’s eyes lead to Christ. Christ’s eyes look forward, but also seem to incorporate the viewer. 

Not much vegetation can be seen in the painting — the Jordan River valley is largely bare except in some places, like the Ford of Bethabara, traditionally regarded as the site of John’s baptizing. One tree is prominent in the background. Could it be the Tree of Knowledge that separates pre-fall and post-fall man, dividing time like the river does? I don’t have a commentary in the painting — the idea is my idle speculation.

Early Netherlandish painting was already experiencing some of the influences of the Renaissance but, unlike its Italian counterpart, was less focused on the humanistic and so retained continuity with many of the religious foci of late Gothic art in Europe. Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck were among the greatest examples of that school.

Bouts, as a commentator notes, was one of the first Northern European painters to employ a “vanishing point,” a point at which all the lines in a painting converge and disappear. In this painting, they all converge behind the central tree.