St. John the Baptist, Forerunner | Frank Sheed | From To Know Christ Jesus | Ignatius Insight
All four evangelists begin Jesus' entry into public life with John the Baptist's emergence from his desert. Matthew leaps straight to John's mission after the return of the Holy Family from Egypt, Luke after the finding of the boy in the Temple. The other two actually begin their Gospel with it, nothing of our Lord's earthly life being told before, apart from John's "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
It is clear, then, that John the Baptist's mission was essential: Jesus' own mission needed it. In his Gospel, St. John interrupts his breathtaking Prologue about the Incarnation of the Word (which we Catholics read as the Last Gospel at Mass) to say: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him." So that the Light of the World, the Light which of all lights could surely not be hid, needed someone to give testimony to him, needed John to give testimony to him!
Little is said in the New Testament to show why John's work was thus essential. Our Lord praises him indeed: "Amongst those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke vii.28): and he was not lavish of praise; pause a moment and try to think of anyone else he praised. But although Jesus says (you will find it in the verse before) that John was to prepare his way, it is hard to find any hint from him as to why any preparation at all was necessary for a mission as powerful in word and as studded with miracles as his. We are not shown in the Gospels mighty things flowing from John's work into Christ's. And in the rest of the New Testament nothing much is made of St. John's mission either. St. Paul never refers to it at all, though he must have known about it, since the only description we have of John's origin is given by Paul's companion and disciple, Luke.
Thanks to Luke, all the same, the Church has been intensely aware of John ever since. He is one of that small and immeasurably select band to whom we say the Confiteor at every Mass and daily in our own prayers. Great saints have been named after him—St. John Baptist de la Salle, for instance, who founded the Brothers of the Christian Schools in the seventeenth century; St. John Baptist de Rossi, the eighteenth-century saint whose own instincts were rather like those of his namesake; in the nineteenth century the Cure of Ars, Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianaey, who would have loved a desert but was never allowed by God to go to one. The number of not spectacularly saintiy persons. who bear his name is, of course, beyond counting—the great French writer of comedy, Moliere, for instance, was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin.
But all that this means is that the parents of the saints, to say nothing of the parents of the dramatist and of the unnumbered others, had a great devotion to the son of Zachary and Elizabeth, not that they had any clear understanding of why it was essential that Our Lord should have him for a Forerunner, or why be should have anybody for a Forerunner. What herald could he possibly need? Their devotion was almost certainly not to the prophet without whom Christ's mission would have lacked an essential element: it was to the child whose birth had been foretold by Gabriel, the child who had leapt in his mother's womb at the sound of Mary's voice as she entered the house of his parents with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in her womb: it was to the man who had paid with his head for telling the truth about Salome's mother.
From John's circumcision until the day he began his great mission in preparation for Christ's greater mission, there is a gap of thirty years, and only two phrases to tell us anything about them. The first: "The child grew and was strengthened in spirit"—probably the spirit here is the Holy Spirit: the whole phrase is at once like, and not quite like, what is said of Our Lord in verse 40 of Luke's second chapter. The second: "And he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel."
Zachary and Elizabeth were both old when John was born. The general view of commentators is that they died when John was young, and that it was as a child he chose the desert rather than the priesthood to which, as his father's son, he was entitled. The whole Jewish priesthood had been a mighty thing, but a foreshadowing only. Now that the Reality it foreshadowed was itself in the world, John had a duty mightier still.
To the south of Jerusalem one finds two areas of rock and chasm, one running westward, the other eastward towards the Dead Sea, where to this day a man could live in almost total solitude. Here, probably, John the Baptist made his long novitiate. It has been suggested that he spent part of the time with the Essenes, as Josephus was to do in his late teens. They were a rigorous, ascetical sect. If he did, his teaching is in reaction against theirs.
But we have no detail of his desert life, save what he ate and what he wore. He wore a garment whose shape, if it had any shape, is not told us: it was made of camel's skin—the nomads used the same material for making tents. Round his waist was a strip of leather. He ate, so Matthew and Mark tell us, locusts and wild honey: the locust is a flying insect about two inches long: the Bedouins still eat them, dried in the sun and salted to taste. What he ate and what he wore must have mattered very little to John: it was not merely asceticism that took him into the desert, he could have been ascetical at home. Solitude was what he wanted, the solitude in which the strong soul called to it reaches maturity most surely.
Did the Devil bother him? John's strange, improbable conception—of a mother past her menopause and an elderly priest—was a nine-days' wonder in and about the Temple. Satan could not have failed to know of it. The child was worth watching. And then there were the long years in the desert. There was, of course, no descent of a dove upon John, no voice from heaven: but these things had never happened to anyone, and Satan had no means of knowing that they were the sign of signs. We know that the Pharisees would later be asking themselves, and ultimately asking John, if he were the Messias. Satan could hardly have avoided wondering too.
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• The Incarnation | Frank Sheed
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Frank Sheed (1897-1981) was an Australian of Irish descent. A law student, he graduated from Sydney University in Arts and Law, then moved in 1926, with his wife Maisie Ward, to London. There they founded the well-known Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward in 1926, which published some of the finest Catholic literature of the first half of the twentieth century.
Known for his sharp mind and clarity of expression, Sheed became one of the most famous Catholic apologists of the century. He was an outstanding street-corner speaker who popularized the Catholic Evidence Guild in both England and America (where he later resided). In 1957 he received a doctorate of Sacred Theology honoris causa authorized by the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities in Rome.
Although he was a cradle Catholic, Sheed was a central figure in what he called the "Catholic Intellectual Revival," an influential and loosely knit group of converts to the Catholic Faith, including authors such as G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Arnold Lunn, and Ronald Knox.
Sheed wrote several books, the best known being Theology and Sanity, A Map of Life, Theology for Beginners and To Know Christ Jesus. He and Maise also compiled the Catholic Evidence Training Outlines, which included his notes for training outdoor speakers and apologists and is still a valuable tool for Catholic apologists and catechists (and is available through the Catholic Evidence Guild).
For more about Sheed, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.