John the Renegade Priest
Dec. 5, 2010:
By Fr. Steve Grunow
The Scriptures that the Church proclaims during the season of Advent highlight figures familiar to many Christians as the essential players in the drama of salvation. One in particular always stands out, John the Baptist. John captures the imagination with the Gospel description of his garment of camel’s hair and his diet of locusts and honey, but also for his fiery disposition that proclaims that God’s chosen one is on his way and his appearance in the world will not make many people all that happy. God is coming to set a world gone wrong right and he means business. John is frequently depicted in Christian art, sometimes as a benign child who plays along side the infant Christ, but more often as a wild man of the wilderness.
My particular favorite in this regard is found in Matthias Grunwald’s magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece, where John directs the viewers’ attention to a Christ who is a Man of Sorrows beyond our reckoning. Seeing Grunwald’s depiction of the Crucified Savior, one wants to turn away, and one might, if not for the insistence of John the Baptist whose presentation compels us to behold the Lamb of God with a gaze that is constant and unflinching.
Making sense of who John the Baptist is in relation to Christ is not an easy task. His entrance into the drama of the Gospel seems to indicate an enduring character who will be with us throughout the piece. But he quickly fades from view, telling us that he must decrease in proportion to Christ’s increase. The account of his death is one of the most memorable tales in the Bible. Who can forget the gruesome circumstances of his demise? John is likened by Christ to Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament who exits the world in a fiery chariot. John’s exit might not be as sublime, but it sure is memorable, as he exits this world with his head brought to a royal banquet on a platter!
Scholars have tried to fill in the gaps in John’s story with theories of their own, and many of these ideas have been scattered via pulpits into the popular culture of the Church. As the culture and the Church convulsed in the social revolutions of the 1960’s and 70’s, John was presented as an archetype of the social revolutionary. Others came to know him as a member of a mysterious sectarian movement called the Essenes. But whatever theory is proposed, John proves to be elusive, disappearing into the wilds from which he came.
Several years ago I read an interesting book by the Oxford scholar Martin Goodman entitled Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Civilizations. The author seeks to present what he believes is a more fair and balanced understanding of the relationship of Israel and the Roman Empire. The two should not, the author insists, simply be painted in mortal opposition to each other. In fact, Goodman insists, the relationship between the two was beneficial for not only the cultural elites of Rome and Jerusalem, but for most of the common people as well. Scholars do argue about such things and history is under constant revision. What I found most interesting about the book was not so much the relationship of Rome and Israel, but the author’s detailed account of one of the most infamous kings in all of history- Herod, distinguised from his successors of the same name by the title “the Great.” In a strange way, understanding Herod might be the means by which John the Baptist can also be understood.
Herod was born in the year 71 BC and died some four years after the birth of Christ. Declared “King of the Jews” by the Roman senate, Herod was actually an Idumean, descendents of the enemies of Israel named in the Old Testament as the Edomites. Herod usurped the ruling Hasomean family by both marriage and murder and imposed his will on the territories of Galilee, Samaria and Judea, the combination of these making his kingdom essentially the same as that of Israel’s greatest kings, David and Solomon. Had it not been for his lineage, which in no way could be linked, except by marriage to the tribe of Judah, Herod’s accomplishments might have been remembered with a fondness reserved for some of Israel’s greatest kings, a fondness that might have overshadowed his evident lack of moral scruples. He was a builder of cities and monuments, including a restoration of the Jerusalem Temple that made it one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was precisely this endeavor that likely pushed John the Baptist not so much over the edge, but into the wilderness.
The Gospel of Luke records that John was a member of the priestly clan of Israel. Both his parents carried forth the priestly tradition of Israel, and the opening of the Gospel of Luke has John’s father ministering within the sanctuary of the Temple itself. Israel’s priesthood was heriditary, and this meant that John, the son of a priest and the grandson of priests on both his parents’ sides of the family, could claim the right to serve in the great Temple of Jerusalem. John was a priest, which might be strange for some to hear, because John is presented by the Gospels as the last of the prophets. But if we really follow the Gospel accounts closely, we see that he is both priest and prophet, designations that increase his importance and his mystery.
So why then is John the priest presented by the Gospel as outside the sacred precincts of the Temple and out in the wilderness warning people of the coming of the terrifying day of the Lord and offering a ritual bath to prepare for way for the Lord, a ritual bath that mimicked the one required of the faithful before they entered the Temple precincts? The likely reason for John’s renegade behavior is Herod’s Temple and how it would have been understood as a Messianic pretense, not only legitimizing Herod’s hold on power, but presenting the Idumean as the Messiah himself. Herod ruled over the territories that David and Solomon ruled, and now he had surpassed both by building a Temple that not only held Israel in awe, but the world. Herod had the political savvy to keep his messianic pretensions indirect, but one only had to read the signs presented in his mighty works- he was making himself and his lineage out to be the fulfillment of Israel’s expectations for the Messiah. The audacity of this was not lost on many, including a priest named John: Herod the usurper of Israel’s true kings controlled not just the land, but the sanctuary of the Lord, acts of treason for a faithful Israelite, but a sacrilege as well.
John’s cries in the wilderness are an invitation to Israel to abandon Herod’s shrine and seek purification to enter, not the Temple of Jerusalem, but the new Temple that would be established by Israel’s true king, whom John was certain would soon be revealed. He put off his priestly garments and retreated from the sanctuary that Herod’s ambition had rendered unclean. John foresaw the coming not just of the true King, that Lamb, the sacrifice which would cleanse the nation, but the establishment of a new Temple which would expose Herod’s temple for the fraud that it was. The true king, the Lamb and the Temple would be revealed to John, and he would then introduce these wonders to us. All are present in the revelation of Christ the Lord, who is Messiah, Lamb of God, and the everlasting Temple of the Most High.
It is likely that many Christians do not make the connection between John and the Temple, for the Baptist is not remembered as a priest, but as a prophet. Rather than this, we should remember him as both priest and prophet and in doing so also recall the circumstances that led him into the wildnerness.
The Gospel recalls that “zeal for the Lord’s house” consumed Christ, but this same zeal consumed John and moved him to the drastic decision of turning his back on the Temple where his ancestors had served for generations, even back to the family of Aaron, the first of Israel’s priests who ministered in the prototypical Temple. In turning away from Herod’s shrine, John turned toward the new Temple, which was revealed to him not as a building made of stones, but as something far more wondrous.
The new Temple is the Body of Christ himself, which is the astounding revelation that God’s presence dwells among us in a real, human nature- a sanctuary constructed not by the power of earthly kings, designed by human ingenuity and made by human hands, but brought into this world from heaven by the Lord himself- the fitting and incorruptable place wherein God would seek communion with humanity and humanity would enjoy communion with God.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.