During this Christmas season we are celebrating the imminent arrival on earth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and his birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Over 2,000 years ago that same arrival was anticipated in reality by the man who has become known in some quarters as the ‘Precursor’, the one who came just before the Christ.
His given name was John, and he has become known to most in the world as ‘John the Baptist‘. He was born right around the first year A.D., and was a cousin of Jesus Christ, their respective mothers having been first cousins.
John’s mother was Elizabeth, and she was married to a priest named Zachary. They were said to be good people, “both just before God” as St. Luke later wrote.
There is a great story about John’s birth. Zachary and Elizabeth were elderly and without child, wanted one, and constantly prayed for a child. Zachary even utilized his priestly position for this purpose.
One day an angel appeared to Zachary and told him that they would have a son, that they should name him John, and that the son would be “great before the Lord” as well as a number of other revelations concerning the son.
Zachary did not believe, and for his disbelief after praying for this very outcome, he was struck dumb (unable to speak) until the birth of the child.
Another great story linking the births of John and Jesus is that of the Assumption.
During the sixth month of her pregnancy, Elizabeth learned of Mary’s own pregnancy and went to visit her. Upon being greeted by Mary, Elizabeth’s baby ‘leaped for joy in her womb’. It was during this visit that Elizabeth uttered the words that have become known to us as the ‘Hail Mary‘ prayer.
John was born approximately six months before Jesus’ own birth. He was said to have “grown and been strengthened in spirit” before going into the desert wilderness for spiritual renewal and strengthening.
He emerged from the desert just before Christ’s own ministry and was said to look like a wild man, wearing clothing “of camel’s hair, a leather girdle about his loins” and eating “locusts and wild honey“.
The strength of his personality, the sincerity of his delivery, and his message that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” drew many people out to hear him and to be baptized by him in the Jordan River. When the religious leaders came out to see what the excitement was about he famously rebuked them by calling them “Ye brood of vipers!”
Some thought that John might indeed by the Christ, but John set the matter straight and clarified his own role by saying “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’” and “I baptize you with water; but there is coming one mightier than I, whose shoes I am not fit to loose; he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.”
Eventually Jesus came out to John in order to be baptized. John said to him “It is I who should be baptized by you“, but Christ made John perform the baptism. As Christ was raised from the water a voice came down from heaven saying “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus went on to gather his Apostles and disciples, and begin his public ministry. John continued his baptism and preaching. At a point, John was taken into custody and held under arrest, the charges being long disputed. What is known is that Herod ultimately and finally had John beheaded.
In these days leading up to Christmas we should always remember the words of that great Precursor, the voice of one crying out in the desert: “Make straight the way of the Lord!”
We again prepare to celebrate his original coming to us, knowing that not only is he with us to the end of the age, but also that some day he will physically come to us yet again.