In my beginning is my end. –T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “East Coker”
St. John the Baptist’s origin and vocation, as recorded in the beginning of the fourth gospel, provides hints of his destiny. In his beginning is his end. The fourth gospel declares that John’s vocation is “to bear witness” to the Messiah. Within the gospel’s poetic prologue John’s raison d’être is revealed: “there was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony (martyrian), to bear witness (martyrese) to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness (martyrese) to the light” (Jn 1:6-8). The original Greek words highlight the fact that John’s entire life is to bear witness to Christ. It also foretells the way he will give his final witness—martyrdom.
As one meditates on the scenes of John’s life, it is evident everything in his life points to Christ. In a noted homily, St. Bede the Venerable asserts, “through his birth, preaching and baptizing, [John] bore witness to the coming birth, preaching and baptism of Christ, and by his own suffering he showed that Christ also would suffer.” The reference point for an interpretation of John’s actions is to look to Jesus. From his mother’s womb to the final shedding of his blood in martyrdom, John’s entire life is oriented towards Christ.
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St. John is the long-awaited and promised child of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah receives the prophecy of his son’s birth as he serves in the Temple of Jerusalem. The angel Gabriel appears to him in the Holy Place and foretells that John will be a great prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit, preparing the people for the coming Messiah. John first encounters the Messiah while they are still both in their mother’s womb. The Blessed Virgin Mary, carrying the Christ Child within her, arrives to help her kinswoman Elizabeth. At Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and the “the babe leaped in her womb” for joy (Lk 1:41, 44). His prophetic action discloses that the presence of Jesus brings the Holy Spirit and joy to people’s lives. Already before birth, he begins his vocation to bear witness to the Messiah.
Through his preaching, John continues to prophetically prepare the way for Christ. All four gospels make mention of this fact through a reference to the book of the prophet Isaiah: “A voice cries in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Is 40:3). John is the “voice” challenging the people of Israel to return to the Lord. John admonishes the people, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2). When asked about his preaching and actions, John constantly refers his mission to the coming Messiah. For example, he indicates that the Messiah is the “mightier” one “whose sandal [he was] not worthy to carry” (Mt 3:11). When Jesus begins preaching, John directs his disciples away from himself and to the Lord: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36) John recognizes his place in the divine plan as the forerunner of the Messiah.
John’s baptism of repentance is the essential action which accompanies his preaching ministry; thus, he is known to history as “the Baptist”. Despite his popularity, John emphasizes that his baptism will be superseded by the work of the Christ. When the Messiah appears, John proclaims, “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11). At the appointed time when Jesus presents himself to John for baptism, John immediately recognizes that Jesus had no need for this washing. Rather, John counters, “I need to be baptized by you” (Mt 3:14). Yet, Jesus’ wish to be numbered among sinners leads John to relent. This event marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and the beginning of the end of John’s. John again diverts attention away from himself instructing his disciples to follow Christ with the remark “this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 1:29-30).
Although the entire life of John bears witness to Christ it is in his suffering and death, as noted by Venerable Bede, that John supplies his final testimony. As Christ’s popularity increases, John is arrested by Herod (Lk 3:20). The sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel provides the most detailed account of all the gospels of the passion of St. John the Baptist. Because of his vocal opposition to Herod’s illicit union with his brother’s wife, John is thrown in prison. Even though John is in jail, he continues to preach. Scripture divulges that Herod listens gladly and perplexingly to John while Herodias, the unlawful wife, hates him and looks for an opportunity to have him killed (Mk 6:20). The occasion presents itself at a dinner party. Herodias’ daughter, Salome, performs a dance which captivates Herod to the point that he promises her anything she desires even up to half his kingdom. Salome, prompted by her mother, asks for “the head of John the baptizer” (Mk 6:24). It arrives on a platter as if it was nothing more than another course at the meal. The final witness of John to the Christ was through the shedding of blood in martyrdom. When Jesus hears about John’s death, He withdraws to the desert to be alone (Mt 14:13). For John’s death also prefigures his own impending death at the hands of the authorities.
John’s role as the precursor was to point to the coming Messiah. The descriptive images used in the gospels to describe John parallel those used to describe Jesus Christ: John is the “voice” in the wilderness (Mk 1:3), Christ the Word (Jn 1:14); John is the “burning and shining lamp” (Jn 5:35), Christ the Light (Jn 8:12); John is the friend of the bridegroom (Jn 3:29), Christ the Bridegroom (Mt 9:15).
T.S. Eliot concludes his poem with a reference to eternal life: In my end is my beginning. It is a reverse of the poem’s first line. This verse is also true for St. John the Baptist. His end is his beginning. Most saints are commemorated on the anniversary of the day they died. The Church insightfully refers to this day as the dies natalis, or day of birth. The day a saint suffers death is the day he is born to eternal life. The end of St. John’s earthly life was just the beginning of his eternal life. In his end is his beginning.
Editor’s note: The image above of St. John the Baptist is painted by Henry Wingate. More paintings can be viewed on his website: www.henrywingate.com.