What is truly special about St. John the Baptizer (John the Baptist), that he is so highly honored in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches? At least the following, if not much more: John is remembered by the Church as “the forerunner” of Jesus, the one who baptized Jesus (Synoptic tradition) or who pointed him out to his own disciples: “Behold the Lamb of God” (Gospel of John). Second, in light of the biblical narrative, it is fair to say that John is a prophet in the great tradition of Israel--some five centuries after that tradition had effectively died out. To his contemporaries, John must have been seen as extraordinary because no prophet had arisen for centuries; and hence, John was seen as a witness to the “end times,” to a period that would usher in the long-awaited “Messianic age.” As we can tell from the Gospels, John “the Baptizer” was often considered the Messiah. For his part, however, John did not draw attention to himself; he is presented as humbly insisting that he is “only a voice crying out,” and one preparing people for “the great and terrible day of the LORD.” John was a genuine prophet of God and of His Christ, and not absorbed in himself in any way.
However great these roles are, another facet of the mystery of this man unfolds in the Gospel narratives: John is, perhaps without knowing it, a true disciple of Jesus. On the one hand, he asked a real question of Jesus: “Are you the One [Messiah] or should we look for another?” And yet, John was a humble servant of God, who could say of the Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Although fiery and a preacher of coming Judgment, John is self-effacing, a true man of God. Indeed, John is so truly a holy man that Jesus himself can say of him: “There is no man born of woman who is greater than John the Baptizer.” John is no cardboard saint, no “good little boy.” Although to us John remains a highly complex and perplexing figure, Jesus saw the man, John, as a most humble and true servant of the living God. Dare we say that Jesus saw and heard in John the God he called “Father.”