The Forerunner (Reflection on Mt 11.2-19)

I already wrote a long blog post today, but I’ve been delinquent in my attempt to discipline myself to write brief reflections on the daily offices, and as it’s a significant feast day today, I figure I should give it a go.

John the Baptist is an interesting character. It’s clear from how he’s discussed in the Gospels that he was viewed as a very important person, a vital link in the story of God’s people, yet we often don’t know quite what to do with him as Christians. He is “a prophet, and more than a prophet,” in the words of Jesus, the apocalyptic typological return of Elijah, the one “preparing a way in the wilderness,” and indeed “no one greater” than John has every lived. This is high praise indeed. Yet, Jesus also says that the least in His Kingdom will be greater than John. 

Herein lies the difficulty for Christians with John and the Jewish tradition as a whole. He is the last of the Old Covenant prophets, a powerful and magnificent capstone on that ancient office, yet must as Moses led his people to the Promised Land but not into it, so too must John and all the Prophets before him yield to Jesus as he ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven. (It is sad on this count that we English-speakers miss the fact that Joshua — who led the People into the Land — and Jesus share the same name.)

Yet despite this, the Church has always held John and what he represents in the highest esteem. In Orthodox church buildings, John’s icon customarily holds a central place on the iconostasis, alongside Mary, Christ, and the saint to whom the community is dedicated. It is in the meeting of John and Jesus that Old and New, or better, Original and Renewed come together. John is in so many ways the Forerunner, the one who runs ahead preparing the way. With all the prophets before him, John calls the People of God to repent, to renew their commitment to God, and proclaims justice and the coming of God’s Reign — one might say the divine commonwealth —  in their midst, a reality brought in by Jesus and fulfilled in His death and resurrection, which are God’s judgment upon the earth. 

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