2. The Prophecy of the Messias
The Public Life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, Vol. 1 by Bishop Alban Goodier, SJ;
The minds of men being what they were, and the tension of the times so great, it was inevitable that questions should be asked concerning John himself. There was the evidence of his early life, and it was confirmed by the evidence of the present; men had found one in whom they believed, who spoke on his own authority, and not after the manner of the Pharisees and Scribes. The time was at hand; the Messias, so it was said both by the common folks and by those who ought to know, was due at any moment.
When He came, He might well be expected to be such a one as John. The question was answered by a rumour; the rumour spread, growing ever more credible as the number grew that favoured it. Was not John the anointed of the Lord, and would he not soon reveal himself?
This was John's opportunity. Hitherto he had spoken only of the Kingdom and of the preparation for it; now it was time to announce the King. These simple people had submitted to his baptism, and had thus proved their goodwill; he would take them further and show them that there was a Baptism yet to come which would put his own to naught. They had grown in devotion to himself; he would assure them that to the One Who was soon to stand amongst them he was not fit to be a slave. His own baptism was only of dead water; that which was to come would be of living spirit. His did but wash the outer surface, for the rest was a symbol and no more; that which was to follow would reach the very soul, would try it as gold is tried in the fire, would be a source of very life, not merely a sign of penance.
He would tell them this, and he would tell it in language such as these simple country people could understand. Up the hill in the distance might be seen some husbandman at work, blowing away with his fan the chaff from his heap of corn, the rich grain purified settling on the floor beneath. It was a happy illustration for his purpose; it would emphasize each point, the utter purity of the Kingdom, the utter truth of the King, the blessedness of membership, the evil of rejection, the added sanction to the belief in eternal bliss or punishment, which had struggled to the light through the ages.
'And as the people were of opinion
And all were thinking in their hearts of John
That perhaps he might be the Christ
John answered and preached
Saying unto all
I indeed baptize you in water
But He that shall come after me
Is mightier than I
Whose shoes I am not worthy to bear
The latchet of whose shoes
I am not worthy to stoop down and loose
He shall Baptize you with the Holy Ghost
And with fire
Whose fan is in His hand
And He will thoroughly cleanse His floor
And will gather His wheat into His barn
Again let us sum up the impression, for on a clear understanding of this scene depends much that is to follow. With hearts lost to him these simple folk believed in John; given such sincerity they could not hold back. With their eyes of longing turned towards the future, to the sun that was to rise above the eastern hills, and with the light of the past shining red behind them, setting over Jerusalem and the mountains of Judaea, they could not but ask themselves whether at last the time had come; whether this singular man, who proclaimed a new Kingdom to be near, who knew the secret of its membership, were not indeed the Messias; whether the signs they were to look for were not upon him; the superhuman vision that made him a safe guide; the conquering conviction that compelled assent; the likeness to the prophets of old whose line had long since perished; the knowledge of hearts, the message of repentance, the opening of the way to new life, the insistence on utter truth, the contempt of formalism. Miracles and signs of that kind they did not expect, such things were not in their category; it was miracle enough that he baptized as with power and spoke as one having authority.
In this spirit they had come to him, and he had received them. Tenderly, gradually he had led them higher, yet never yielding one whit of his sternness. Humbly, without fear of losing hold upon them, he had debased himself before the Light that was to come:
'He was not the light
But was to give testimony of the light.'
Firmly he had repeated to them the need of preparation for its coming. Let there be no mistake; the Master Who is to come is One Who will not be deceived. He will see through the outward appearance; He will not be content with mere form; He will search the hearts of men, and will have no surface substitute; He will accept none but the true, the sincere, the genuine; He will not endure the
husks with the grain, but will have that grain purified at whatever cost, even though with His Own hand He must waft the husks away. One can feel how and why John puts this utter truth of Jesus above all things else, utterly true Himself, seeking only utter truth in others, Whose work in the world would be to 'bear witness to the truth' and to be believed, as John himself had been believed, on His Own authority alone. To a people grown stereotyped in form, to whom a species of self-deception had come to be considered a virtue, this was essentially John's message, and was indeed 'good tidings of great joy'.
The Evangelists one and all imply that, if they would, they could say much more concerning John:
'And many other things exhorting
Did he preach to the people.'
But for the present this must be enough. More will yet follow; he is too important, his witness is too convincing, to be set aside with this single notice. Still it is sufficient that here he should be set before us, a gaunt figure on the horizon of the yellow-brown desert, the Judaean hills before him with the Holy City beyond, the Dead Sea with its memories of doom on his left down below, the sun rising over the hills of Moab and brightening the sky behind, while he stands between two eras, the link between the old and the new, the summary of the past and the foreshadowing of the future.