“Amazement is the thing. / Not love, but the astonishment of loving.” —Alastair Reid
With the possible exception of Judas Iscariot, there are few figures close to Jesus more tragic than his cousin, John. Before his birth his destiny was promised, during his life his focus on the Judgment was singular, and before his death his aloneness was excruciating.
Early on, he had been the very picture of a prophet of old, a mouthful of fire and an ax in hand to cut down these desiccated trees of Israel. But he’d been jolted with joy when baptizing Jesus. The man came up from the dirty stream aglow, his face lifted to the heavens, hearing something beyond the audible spectrum of the people around him.
John hadn’t seen him since that day at the Jordan River, but it was hard to miss his influence. The news of Jesus had spread through the region as his healings became known. Even after some of John’s disciples had gone with Jesus, John was not discouraged. He was a forerunner, an Elijah to the Messiah, the one who would prepare the way for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. While Jesus was out sowing the seeds of the kingdom up and down the country, from Galilee to Jerusalem, John was at the river baptizing. Judgment from one, forgiveness from the other. But that was then.
“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Matthew 11:2, 3).
It is impossible to hide the disappointment in that question. It is the cry of those who have thrown in their lot with every messianic figure throughout history. Are you the one? Are you really? The wheels of history turn slowly and where they stop can’t be known beforehand, only hoped for. It is a question that had buzzed in John’s head for weeks, but he’d never breathed it out loud until now.
He did have occasional visitors in Herod’s dank prison, disciples from the days when they were all encamped in the wilderness together. They brought him reports of Jesus, his signs and wonders, each one a down payment on the kingdom John insisted was coming.
In those long days he was like a man adrift at sea who hears the breakers on a hidden shore at night: what lay ahead was either death or deliverance.
We cannot know what was in his mind toward the end, but we might imagine. He was at once Everyman and yet unique, as we all are. What might we think and feel in that place? How would we face our death or our deliverance? Both are certain — either one will happen or the other — and the numinous anticipation of each arrives with every building wave. It’s the breaking wave that is uncertain: we are tossed without control. Beyond the breakers, on the shore, lies our fate, and we are released into it only after a churning downside-up dragging across the reefs of our doubts and fears.
In his aloneness, John considers: had he been wrong about Jesus? From his childhood (miraculous in itself as his mother never tired of reminding him) he had been taught that his kinsman would bring Yahweh to the world. All nations would stream to Jerusalem on highways leveled, widened, and straightened. All creation would sing the praises of the Creator. Righteousness would rule, peace would prevail, the lion and the lamb would lie down together.
But before all that would come Judgment, the cleansing by fire of a people to be presented as pure before the Lord. John would be Isaiah’s echo, “Prepare a way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.” He kept it simple when he emerged from the hills and erupted into the wilderness. He had a message that cut like a sword across the generations, dividing one from another: “Repent; for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you!” And the people came, at first in ones and twos, and then by the hundreds, panting in the heat and clambering over the rocks down to the stream that gushed in the spring season and slowed and pooled in the summer. “What should we do?” they cried as they pressed together along the banks of the stream. “Repent of your sins!” he had roared.
When the Pharisees and Sadducees had shown up, gathering their robes about them, demanding baptism, he had called them on it. Their hypocrisy was like a blackness in front of his eyes; he could hardly bear the sight of them. “You vipers brood!” he had hissed. “Who warned you to escape from the coming retribution?” They were all words and theories, no action. They were trees without fruit, they were bastard children claiming a heritage they did not deserve. God could raise up children out of the stones in the river that would be more faithful to their Creator than these snakes and frogs. “I baptize with water, but there is one coming after me who will baptize with the Spirit and with fire.”
And then Jesus arrived at the Jordan from Galilee, asking to be baptized. John demurred, drawing back, but Jesus gently insisted. And so he had plunged him under and seen him rise, water cascading down his back, his hair wet and clinging to his shoulders. After the voice, he had turned toward the wilderness, not toward Jerusalem, and John had shuddered for knowing what lay ahead of him in that vast and cave-pocked landscape. He knew the whispers and voices that the wind carried, the weight of heat under the bronzed sky, and the cold solitude of the nights.
They were both chosen, both alone, even in the midst of crowds. After years alone and then years with others who, like him, agreed to a community of few words, the incessant chatter of the people was like the swarming of bees for John. Jesus seemed to welcome the crowds around him. They pressed up against him on every side, dancing in front of him like children skipping backwards. He smiled, touched them, looked in their eyes, tousled their hair. John, hearing of this from his disciples, could only shake his head in admiration.
So when John’s disciples come to Jesus with the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus does not answer at first. He bows his head; those closest to him see that his eyes are closed, and his mouth is set in a hard, straight line. He begins to speak, his voice a quaver at first but steadying as he raises his head.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are hearing the good news…” He looks around at the circle of faces before him and his eyes blur with tears. All of the power he feels when he touches someone to heal them, all the assurance he receives that he is on the right path, all the pain he absorbs from those who are frightened, alone, hanging by a thread — all of that thickens his sight. There is a ringing in his ears, and he drops his head. He gasps and takes a step back; it is as if he feels a sword thrust in his side. He jerks upright, then, and cries, “And happy is the man who does not find me a stumbling-block.”
Silently, the messengers nod and turn to leave. Jesus looks after them for a long moment. He takes a step forward, as if he would call them back. Suddenly, he is angry. “When you came out to the wilderness looking for John, what did you expect to see?” he exclaims vehemently. “Silks and satins? Only people in palaces wear that!” He almost spits the words. “What then? A prophet? Yes, a prophet, but so much more.” Now he is pacing, his fists clenched. “I tell you this: never has a mother’s son been born who is greater than John, and yet even the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he!”
There is more. Jesus rages at the indecisiveness of the people, at their shallow attitudes. What do you want? he cries. You’re like children who can’t make up their minds. We pipe, but you don’t dance. We mourn, but you won’t cry. John doesn’t eat or drink and you think he’s crazy. I come along eating and drinking, and you call me a glutton who hangs around with sinners and tax-collectors!
And most enigmatically, “Ever since the coming of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are seizing it.”
Jesus is nothing if not a realist. He’s not seduced by our flattery nor discouraged by our ignorance. Neither will he explain everything he says, and if we are perplexed or discomfited by that, he does not expect it should prevent us from following him.
And what are we waiting for? Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to be within us and surrounding us. Evidence for this comes through acting on it in our own time and place. Is he the One or should we look for another? “God’s wisdom is proved right by its results” (Matthew 11:19). Each of us, alone and chosen, creates the kingdom together.
John, lying awake in the night, hears the hurrying footsteps toward his cell and stands. Though the violent are seizing the kingdom, he knows who is the One.
Notes & References:
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at [email protected].
Photo credit: Arif Wahid on Unsplash
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