Catholic Activity: The Story of St. John the Baptist
Unfolds the story of St. John the Baptist to be retold.
St. John the Baptist has a birthday on June 24: one of the oldest feasts in the liturgy and, aside from the birthdays of Our Lord and His Mother — and Pentecost, if you will, the only saint's birthday to be celebrated. All the others were born with original sin on their souls; so the day of their death, or their particular heroism, or the founding of their Order, is celebrated. How St. John came to be born without original sin on his soul is a story almost everyone knows, but fewer realize that there is mention of him seven centuries before in the prophecy of Isaias.
Isaias, the children must be reminded, is the prophet whose words are so prominent in the Advent liturgy, foretelling the coming of Christ. For example, he says something that they recognize immediately: "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (7:14). His words are also used in all four Gospels to describe St. John the Baptist; in fact, St. John says them about himself: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord" (40:3).
Learning all these things one at a time in our family, we finally came to Isaias, and in addition to discovering how and what he prophesied, we looked for some autobiographical facts about him. He came to a violent end, we discovered, sawed in half by his son-in-law, Manasses. "Sawed in half," said one. "Heavens! which way?"
This is a minor detail alongside his prophecies, I agree, but the children consider it one of the more interesting facts they have picked up about saints and martyrs.
The story of St. John the Baptist begins: "In the days of Herod, king of Judea." So that sets the scene. The time was before the birth of Jesus, but the king was the same. Up in the hill country, in a town of Judea, there lived an old man and his wife, Zachary and Elizabeth, holy and good but with neither chick nor child, and this was their great sorrow. Zachary was a priest, and twice a year for a week at a time he went down to Jerusalem to serve in the temple. At the time the story begins, Zachary had been chosen by lot to offer incense on the altar of incense during the morning and evening sacrifices. One day when he went to the holy place alone, he saw an angel standing by the altar and was troubled and much afraid. But the angel told him not to be afraid. He had come to tell Zachary of a son God would send him, in whom he would have "joy and gladness . . . for he shall be great before the Lord . . . and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb." (It was here foretold that the son would be born without original sin.)
But Zachary was old and his wife was old and it was uncommon for folks as old as they to start having babies; so he asked: "How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years."
Then the angel said, "I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God . . . and behold, thou shalt be dumb and unable to speak until the day when these things come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words which will be fulfilled in their proper time." And when Zachary came out of the temple and faced the wondering crowd outside, he made signs to them as best he could and they saw that he was dumb. (This is a marvelous episode for a charade. The first time we did it was one night in the middle of the kitchen when even the oldest was very small. I had been telling the story as we washed and wiped the dishes together. A charade suggested itself. By now they have acted it out so often that they automatically respond to any mention of Zachary by putting a finger to their lips.)
So Zachary went home and Elizabeth discovered soon that she was to have a child. She retired from public view, the Gospel says: to be quiet and prepared, and ponder her precious secret.
Six months went by, and the same angel appeared to Mary in a town of Galilee called Nazareth, and greeted her with words that will never be forgotten: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women." Then, as he said to Zachary, he said to Mary: "Do not be afraid." He told her that she would bring forth a son and call His name Jesus, and that "He shall be great and be called the Son of the Most High." Then, after he had told her the child would be conceived of the Holy Spirit, he told her Elizabeth's secret and explained as he did to Zachary that although Elizabeth was very old, it would come to pass — "for nothing shall be impossible with God."
Then Mary, in words so simple it is hard to grasp that they were to change the history of the world — not merely change it, but stop it still, and startle time and space and fill eternity, said: "Be it done unto me according to Thy word."
And she "rose up and went with haste" to visit her cousin in the hill country. She probably rode a donkey there in the company of a caravan. I wish St. Luke had not been so sparing with words, especially when he tells of her arrival. All he says is that she entered the house of Zachary and saluted Elizabeth. If we only knew what she said. It was probably some Hebrew custom, some form of asking a blessing on the house and its occupants; but try as I might, the only thing I can ever imagine is that she called out: "Elizabeth dear, are you home?"
"And it came to pass, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe in her womb leapt. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out with a loud voice, saying: 'Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb! And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, the moment the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy. . . .'"
Father Bruckberger tells in his Mary Magdalene of a little church in southern France where there is a painting of the Visitation, and in it the painter has fashioned a little window in the garments of Elizabeth through which we may see the tiny unborn John, "sitting as though in an armchair, full of enthusiasm and playing a violin." John's first greeting to Jesus. . . . Our smaller children will explain, when it is their turn to do the Second Joyful Mystery, "St. John jumped for joy inside his mother." It was the moment of his sanctification, being cleansed of original sin by the Holy Spirit; and right after it came Mary's Magnificat. No wonder he leaped for joy. The world should have leaped for joy.
"And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her own house."
No one is sure, they say, if she stayed for the birth of St. John. I am amazed. So is every mother I know. Let the scholars haggle over it if they will; of course she stayed. Elizabeth was old, she had never carried a child before. What else but Mary's concern would move her to rush to her side like that? Elizabeth would be urged to rest while Mary cooked the meals, fed the chickens (if there were chickens), tended to the little labors of that quiet household. And in the evenings after prayer two such women would sit and ponder the promise God had made to save the world. And there is this to remember (then you know she stayed): this child who was expected was to go before the path of her own Son, and prepare His ways. With all her heart Mary would have wanted to see and assist at his birth.
Elizabeth brought forth her son, St. Luke says, to the delight of her family and neighbors, and announced on the day of his circumcision that he would be called John. What? protested her friends and relatives, John! No one in the family was named John. Far better to name him for his father, Zachary. Quite sure Zachary would want precisely that, they made signs to him to make his wishes known. Zachary asked for a writing tablet. On it he wrote the words: "John is his name" — and immediately was able to speak. Such a fear came on the neighbors that they whispered about all the hill country: "What then will this child be?"
Well they might ask. Those who stayed to hear Zachary's canticle should have guessed, for in it he said: "And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give His people knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of their sins. . . ."
St. Luke used almost the same words to describe the child John that he used to describe the child Jesus: "And the child grew and became strong in spirit and was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel."
The desert where St. John lived and fasted and prayed was actually a grazing land, unfit for growing crops but able to sustain the life of hermits and herds; nor was it rare in those days for hermits to seek a life of solitude in the desert. That he ate locusts (grasshoppers, if you prefer) invariably draws a shudder, but this was not uncommon, and is not today, when Arab and African people still dry and save them as protection against famine. Or they may have been carob beans, a common "fruit" used for thousands of years in Mediterranean lands and called by the name of locust. Wild honey, on the other hand, sounds quite delicious.
His garment, like the tents of Saul of Tarsus, was cloth woven of camel's hair, and he wore a leather girdle about his loins. This is the extent of his physical description. It is only when we meet him in public life that we discover what he was like; and when we hear him addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees in almost the same words Our Lord used later, we realize the divine cunning in naming John the Voice that would announce the Word.
"Brood of vipers! Who has shown you how to flee from the wrath to come?" he cried out to their faces.
"Serpents, brood of vipers, how are you to escape the judgment of Hell?" Jesus would cry, perhaps to the same faces.
But John was tender; and when earnest seekers asked him what to do, he gave them straight answers that they could understand.
"Let him who has two coats share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise."
When the soldiers asked what they should do, he said: "Do not plunder, nor accuse the innocent falsely, and be content with your pay." He told the tax collectors to take no more than was due from the people they taxed.
When the followers who loved him began to wonder if he was the Messias, he finally spoke the words for which he is most famous: "I, indeed, baptize you with water. But one mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose."
Never, among all the excuses and delays responding to the familiar refrain: "Jamie, John, Monica, someone! Please tie the baby's shoe!" has anyone offered: "I am not worthy." Most sinners, even pint-size, are certain that their business is far too important to be interrupted for the tying of shoes. But when St. John says he is unworthy to tie Our Lord's shoe, it makes one think. St. Peter said, Holy Thursday night, that he was not worthy to have Our Lord wash his feet, but Jesus said He must, all the same. Put like that, it's hard to understand. It can be sorted out, however, and this is what it means:
If we are to see Christ in our brothers and sisters, then like St. John we are not even worthy to tie their shoes. But Jesus did the work of a servant before us, and told us to imitate Him. It is being another Christ and seeing Christ in one another, at one and the same time. To be like Him we must do as He did. To see Him in one another, we must feel as St. John did.
John was an amazing man. Imagine the faith of him, doggedly preaching the advent of Christ Whom he would not recognize if he saw Him. That day Jesus approached to be baptized, he guessed, but not until it was done did he know. It had been so many years since their childhood and they had both changed so much.
Ironically enough, after all those years of self-denial and hardship, his death became an entertainment at a king's birthday party. Another Herod was king, a son (one of the lucky ones) of the Herod who was king when John was born; and beside him on the throne sat the impure wife of his brother. She hated John because he had shouted at the sinfulness of their trumped-up marriage. Not content to have him thrown in prison, she was determined to have his life. Slyly she watched Herod admire the dancing of her daughter. Greedily she waited for Herod to offer the girl a gift. When he did, the mother whispered what it should be, and the child ran back to the king and said: "I want thee right away to give me on a dish the head of John the Baptist." The strange thing is that Herod didn't want to, as Pilate didn't want the death of Jesus. But high men in high places cannot bear to lose face. St. Mark tells that because of his promise, and "because of his oath and because of his guests," he sent an executioner and commanded that his head be brought on a dish.
John's death, like Christ's, was a spectacle, and St. Mark concludes his account of it with words that could refer to the death of Our Lord. "And his disciples, hearing it, came and took away his body, and laid it in a tomb."
Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956