by Kevin Tierney
When Catholics typically celebrate the Saints in the liturgy, we often think of those like the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin, doctors of the Church, etc. While all of these are important saints, the saint we celebrate today is often not thought of as in their company. Yet St. John the Baptist probably rivals only Jesus and the Blessed Mother in importance to Christians. When we invoke the names of the saints in the Confiteor (in the Extraordinary Form), only Mary is given a higher honor than that of John the Baptizer. In various Eastern liturgies, he is frequently referred to as “the Great Forerunner” and is held in the highest of esteem.
Why have Catholics traditionally held John the Baptist in such high esteem? A lot of modern commentary focuses on two aspects of John’s life: The Visitation, and his beheading. (Of interest is that the Extraordinary Form and Eastern Rites also commemorate his beheading.) This is done for understandable reasons. In today’s culture of death, it is nice to be reminded that even the unborn were sanctified by Christ’s presence, and how from the moment of his conception John was destined for greatness. Likewise, in a society experiencing the redefinition of marriage, it is comforting to remember that John spoke against a similar evil (in condemning a marriage contrary to God’s law) and was martyred for it.
Important as these things are, I think it would be a mistake to confine John to the setting of the modern culture wars. Jesus called him the greatest prophet, and viewed it essential that he be baptized by John. I want this to sink in your head before we continue. The Almighty and Omnipotent God viewed it essential that he be seen as a follower and spiritual successor of a man. What makes John so important?
To understand this, we need to understand the nature of a prophet. Far too often, the office of the prophet is portrayed in contemporary eyes as that of a glorified fortune teller. To prophesy is to speak only of future events, and normally in a very obscure fashion. This is quite simply not the biblical concept of a prophet. A prophet existed to announce to the people that they had to recapture their original calling through repentance. Once they had done this, they could then live in security for the future. If they did not, then their continuing decline would reach a critical point. In short, they used the past to change the present so the future would be better.
A secondary reason for a prophet’s existence was that of building up. Through the faithful execution of their office, they help trigger a spiritual renewal within those they minister to. While the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah might have been viewed as the low points of Judah’s military power, they were viewed as a high point of Israel’s relationship with God, due to the actions of Isaiah and Jeremiah.