|Icon of John the Baptist -- Rublev|
John the Baptist features prominently in the Gospel readings for the season of Advent, and is the subject of the third Sunday’s Gospel in all three years of the Lectionary cycle. He then reappears shortly after Christmas on the first Sunday in Epiphany for the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. The Lectionary thus does its utmost to drive home the key role that John the Baptist has to play in understanding the significance of Jesus. He is the link between the promises revealed to Israel by the prophets of the Old Testament, a link underlined by the passages from Isaiah that provide the Old Testament lessons for this week and last. 'The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me', Isaiah says, and John can say exactly the same. There is this crucial difference, though. The message now, which Christ at the end of his ministry commissions his disciples to preach, is that the salvation promised to Israel is for “all the nations”.
The image of John that the Gospel passages paint is very much in accord with the prophetic tradition from which he springs. Like so many of them, he is an outsider, roughly dressed, existing on a strange and meager diet, and proclaiming his message in ‘the wilderness’, which is to say, on the edge of human settlements, whose inhabitants must go beyond town and village limits to hear him. John the Baptist fits so well the people's preconception of how a prophet should be, it is only natural that they should wonder if he might be the promised Messiah.
|Leonardo d Vinci - John the Baptist|
In this week’s Gospel they ask him outright if he is – but he denies it, and famously points to ‘one who is coming after me’, the thong of whose sandal, he declares, ‘I am not worthy to untie’. The true Messiah, it turns out, is a very different kind of prophet. The Gospels all depict Jesus in the heart of town life – conversing in busy streets, visiting houses, sitting at dinner tables -- even to the point of being accused of engaging too easily with the seedier side of urban life. His clothing, too, as the soldiers at his Crucifixion discovered, is fine enough to be wagered for.
In their depictions of John and Jesus, then, the four Gospels all implicitly invite us to engage in a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise. It is one that can prove highly instructive and illuminating, and reveal another dimension of the way in which the 'true' messiah is never 'true to form'.