Possessing both a Bachelor of Arts in history and a continued passion for the subject, I constantly remind myself to view persons and events in a large historical context. According to the English poet John Donne in his poem No Man is an Island,
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
No person lives in isolation free from the influences of others humans and world events. Viewing connections between the Old and New Testaments is no different. Events and characters throughout the history and religious development of Judaism forged the way for the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ. Throughout the Why Catholics Must Have Bible A.D.D. series, I have portrayed that contextual reading is not merely a preferred, but an essential component to understanding and unlocking the fullness of Jesus’ gospel message. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament.106 As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New (CCC 129).
Today I wish to share the relationship between the famous Old Testament prophet Elijah and how he is a predecessor and prefiguring of John the Baptist.
Elijah and John the Baptist both faced wicked monarchs in their respective times. The Old Testament prophets vehemently opposed the evil ways of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab. In 1 Kings 21, Elijah was able to get the king to repent of and humble himself before the Lord.
Similarly, John the Baptist squared off against an evil ruler as well—King Herod. Standing up to the king, John was loud in Herod’s lusting after and seeking to marry his brother’s ex-wife Herodias. The prophet’s continual condemnation of Herod’s evil led to John’s beheading.
Both prophets spent enormous amounts of time praying and fasting in the desert. According to 1 Kings 19:1-14, Elijah flees to the desert to escape the wrath of Queen Jezebel after he destroyed the prophets of the idol Ba’al. The prophet spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness. His period of fasting culminated with his famous encounter with God in the stillness and quite voice.
Fast forward to the New Testament and John the Baptist lives in a similar manner. Matthew 3 tells of John preaching in the desert of Judea—clothed in camel hides and eating locusts. His speech against false worship is similar is tone to Elijah. The Baptist chastised the Pharisees and Sadducees by saying,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.f 10Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Harbinger of Greatness
As profound and mighty prophets both Elijah and John the Baptist were in their own regard, they ultimately paved the way for someone greater to follow—Elisha and Jesus respectively. Elisha’s superiority is exemplified in providing greater miracles and ultimately being a foreshadowing of Jesus himself. The successor of Elijah, healed lepers, multiplied food, and resurrected the widow’s son. All of these miracles are things Jesus performed—simply on a grander manner.
The liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church places the feast day of John the Baptist on June 24th. It is interesting to note that this placement is close to the summer solstice and the time of the year where the day slowly starts to grew less and less. Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, occurs after the winter solstice. During the darkest periods of the year, there exists hope on December 25th as the daylight is increasing. John the Baptist tells us his role in salvation history. The prophet states, “He must increase while I must decrease!” (John 3:30).
John also defers to Jesus in Mark 1:7-8 when he says, “And this is what he proclaimed: ‘One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.'”
Let’s close with an excerpt from a sermon by St. Augustine for the Feast of St. John the Baptist. I found it while praying the Liturgy of the Hours. For more information on this amazing ancient public prayer of the Catholic Church please feel free to visit www.divineoffice.org.
(Sermo 293,1-3: PL 38, 1327-1328)
The Church observes the birth of John as a hallowed event. We have no such commemoration for any other fathers; but it is significant that we celebrate the birthdays of John and of Jesus. This day cannot be passed by. And even if my explanation does not match the dignity of the feast, you may still meditate on it with great depth and profit. John was born of a woman too old for childbirth; Christ was born of a youthful virgin. The news of John’s birth was met with incredulity, and his father was struck dumb. Christ’s birth was believed, and he was conceived through faith. Such is the topic, as I have presented it, for our inquiry and discussion. But as I said before, if I lack either the time or the ability to study the implications of so profound a mystery, the Spirit who speaks within you even when I am not here will teach you better; it is the Spirit whom you contemplate with devotion, whom you have welcomed into your hearts, whose temples you have become. John, then, appears as the boundary between the two testaments, the old and the new. That he is a sort of boundary the Lord himself bears witness, when he speaks of “the law and the prophets up until John the Baptist.” Thus he represents times past and is the herald of the new era to come. As a representative of the past, he is born of aged parents; as a herald of the new era, he is declared to be a prophet while still in his mother’s womb. For when yet unborn, he leapt in his mother’s womb at the arrival of blessed Mary. In that womb he had already been designated a prophet, even before he was born; it was revealed that he was to be Christ’s precursor, before they ever saw one another. These are divine happenings, going beyond the limits of our human frailty. Eventually he is born, he receives his name, his father’s tongue is loosened. See how these events reflect reality. Zechariah is silent and loses his voice until John, the precursor of the Lord, is born and restores his voice. The silence of Zechariah is nothing but the age of prophecy lying hidden, obscured, as it were, and concealed before the preaching of Christ. At John’s arrival Zechariah’s voice is released, and it becomes clear at the coming of the one who was foretold. The release of Zechariah’s voice at the birth of John is a parallel to the rending of the veil at Christ’s crucifixion. If John were announcing his own coming, Zechariah’s lips would not have been opened. The tongue is loosened because a voice is born.
When John was preaching the Lord’s coming he was asked, “Who are you?” And he replied: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” The voice is John, but the Lord “in the beginning was the Word.” John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal.
Thank you God for the strong and passionate witnesses to the truth in the persons of Elijah and John the Baptist!