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St. John the Baptist: Last of the Old Testament prophets
By MICHAEL GAFFNEY LubbockOnline.com

Listed in a pamphlet published by the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation is an ancient fresco that depicts St. John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets.

The image of St. John will be among the 12th and 13th century frescoes that go on display in Lubbock in June, during the Vatican Museums Exhibition at the Museum of Texas Tech.

The Rev. Malcolm Neyland, foundation director, said that St. John revealed the Messiah to the world.

Unlike many among the Hebrew tribes, John believed that the promised Messiah's kingdom would be supernatural rather than earthly, Neyland said.

"You have the Davidic line who believed the Messiah would rule over the earth," he said. "So when Christ said, 'My kingdom is not of this earth,' they charged that he was a false prophet," Neyland said.

The Hebrews or Israelites believed that the Messiah promised by the prophets, from Moses and Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob, would be a king who ruled on earth, Neyland said.

"That meant when their king came, with one mighty stretch of his arm, he would wipe away their enemies," he said. "But John recognized that Jesus was the one we had been waiting for all those centuries. And John, upon seeing Jesus approach, said, 'Behold, the lamb of God,' acknowledging Christ."

The story of John baptizing Jesus marks the beginning of Christ's ministry, Neyland said.

"By (Christ's) own example, he would show what God the Father wanted for his people was to enter his kingdom in heaven," Neyland said. "So there would be death, then new life. As Christ said, 'Unless ye die, ye shall not enter the kingdom of God."

John the Baptist preached that when the Messiah came he would bring salvation, but not through establishing a kingdom on earth.

"The signs of the Messiah's arrival would be, the blind would see, the lame would walk, the dead would rise, which is exactly what Christ did," Neyland said.

Because he died after the birth of Christ, St. John the Baptist is often referred to as the first Christian martyr, Neyland said.

The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist, also was known as the Precursor, are the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of St. Luke because he gives the circumstances of John's birth, his ministry and death.

St. John's father, Zachary, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, "was of the daughters of Aaron," according to St. Luke.

Both Zachary and Elizabeth were growing old, and both mourned the fact that they had no children. But an angel appeared to Zachary one day as he stood in his church and told him that he would father a son who would be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that he would be named John.

"And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just," Luke wrote.

Because Zachary was slow to believe the angel, he was struck dumb as punishment until John's birth.

Nothing is known for certain regarding St. John's birth date. The Gospels suggest that the "Precursor" was born about six months before Christ; but the year of Christ's birth has not been settled by Biblical scholars.

Of John's early life, St. Luke says only that "the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit, and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel."

John began preaching in the desert region near the Jordan River "in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar," Luke wrote. St. John delivered his teachings dressed in a camel hair garment, and ate locust and wild honey, the story goes.

Some believed John mad because of his disheveled, rough appearance, but many gathered whenever he preached.

The Gospels of Luke, Matthew and Mark all profess that John the Baptist was "truly a prophet."

One of John's more famous phrases was, "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," (Matt., iii, 2).

John gained the title "the Baptist" because he purified those who would follow his teaching by bathing them in water, saying that "baptism was good, not so much to free one from certain sins as to purify the body, the soul being already cleansed from its defilement by justice," " (Joseph, "Antiq.", XVIII, vii).

Baptism, more than anything else, attracted public attention to such an extent that he was surnamed "the Baptist" by his disciples.

Some Hebrew religious leaders thought John was claiming to be the Messiah, but he disavowed their assertion, insisting that his was only on a forerunner's mission.

"I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose. He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire, whose fan is in his hand, and he will purge his floor and will gather the wheat into his barn. But the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke, iii, 16, 17).

When John and Jesus did meet, John made clear to all that he was only a messenger, and that Christ was the Messiah, the promised one, Neyland said.

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John, but the prophet asked Jesus why he would seek baptism when his soul was free of sin.

John's words implied his recognition of Christ as the Messiah, and after baptizing Jesus, a voice from heaven was heard saying "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased," (Matthew, iii, 15-17).

John continued his ministry, testifying that he had seen Jesus and recognized him as the son of God.

As is common with Old Testament prophets, details of the death of John the Baptist vary.

Prince Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, had married, likely for political reasons, the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabathaeans. But on a visit to Rome, Antipas fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip, and induced her to come on to Galilee.

When and where St. John met Antipas is unknown, but the synoptic Gospels say that John rebuked the prince for his evil deeds, especially his public adultery.

Herod, swayed by Herodias, did not allow the unwelcome rebuke to go unpunished. He "sent and apprehended John and bound him in prison."

But Josephus writes a different story containing an alternate reason for St. John's arrest.

"As great crowds clustered around John, Herod became afraid lest the Baptist should abuse his moral authority over them to incite them to rebellion, as they would do anything at his bidding," Josephus wrote. "Therefore he thought it wiser, so as to prevent possible happenings, to take away the dangerous preacher ... and he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus." (Antiq., XVIII, v, 2).

Whatever the prince's motive, it is certain that Herodias nourished a hatred against John:

"She laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death." (Mark, vi, 19)

St. John languished probably for some time in the fortress of Machaerus, but the ire of Herodias, unlike that of Herod, never abated. She watched for her chance to harm him and it came at the birthday feast which Herod, after Roman fashion, gave to the "princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee," Mark wrote. And when Herodias (Josephus names her Salome) danced for Herod, the king granted her any wish, and she wished for the head of John the Baptist on a dish.

"And the king was struck sad. Yet, because of his oath and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her, but sending an executioner he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish," states the Gospel of St. Mark.

But the Precursor's influence did not die with him, and early Christian writers speak of a sect taking its name from St. John and adhering to his teachings and practice of baptism.

The day of his death, recorded as Aug. 29 is suspect because of the changes in liturgical calendars, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII.

By tradition, St. John's burial place is said to have been Sebaste, but a portion of the St. John's relics were carried to Jerusalem, and then to Alexandria where, on 27 May A.D. 395, they were laid in the basilica dedicated to him on the site of the once-famous temple of Serapis.

Other portions of John's remains, at different times, found their way to many sanctuaries of the Christian world, and a long list of churches claim possession of some part of the sainted relics.

What became of the head of St. John the Baptist is still a mystery, although some say it was buried in Herod's palace at Jerusalem, where it was found during the reign of Constantine.

The grisly relic, in whole or in part, is claimed by several churches, among them Nemours St-Jean d'Angeli in France and St. Silvestro in Capite, Rome.

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