John the Baptist is the forerunner of Christ, the last and greatest of all the prophets that ever was or would be. There were many prophets in Israel and each gave us a further insight into the coming Messiah. Nathan promised that the Messiah would come from David’s line (2 Samuel 7:16). Micah situates his birth in Israel (5:2). The Book of Isaiah speaks of the virgin with child (7:14) as well as the Suffering Servant (53:1-12). Zechariah anticipates his humble arrival astride a donkey on a future Palm Sunday (9:9).
But the groundwork that the prophets had been laying through the previous millennium comes to its culmination in John, “who was his herald, and made Him known when at last he came” (former Advent Preface II). John’s mission is to “go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Canticle of Zechariah).
John is the ultimate anti-Narcissus. John is constantly pointing away from himself, constantly redirecting peoples’ attention to the Lord and his ways. It’s what ultimately gets him into trouble with Herod Antipas (see last week’s essay). We see this redirection in today’s Gospel. In response to the emissaries from Jerusalem, John’s response is constantly negative, who he is not. When asked who he is, he first of all identifies himself not even with his own words but those of Isaiah (v. 23). Only then does he explain what he does — baptizing — as preparatory to the “one among you, whom you do not recognize” (v. 26). John frames the whole passage by calling John a witness, one who “testifies” bearing witness to the “light” (vv. 6-8) — the “Light of the World” (John 8:12).
These ideas are embodied in Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov’s painting, “The Appearance of Christ Before the People,” and Ivanov spent 20 years painting that huge oil canvas (17-1/2 by 25 feet).
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