When I was in grade school, the dear Sisters of Mary taught us a song in music class about John the Baptist. I don’t remember the whole song, but I remember the beginning of the refrain, which has been playing over and over in my head as the Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24) approaches,
A voice in the wilderness, let it be heard,
Preparing the way in the world for the Word…
That’s all I remember, but that’s enough because the image it conjures up is plenty of fodder for meditation.
The translation in the New American Standard Bible Revised Edition (the one used by the USCCB for liturgies) uses “desert” instead of wilderness. But I prefer wilderness, and I’ll tell you why.
I saw it for myself.
While I was in Jordan this past April, our group visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist lived and ministered and where our Lord was baptized by him.
It isn’t a desert, at least not in the sense that we picture it.
It’s a (mildly) hilly area along the Jordan River, covered with plants and grasses and small trees. The Jordanian government has funded a major project to restore the area to its natural habitat, and so when I saw it, it looked much the same as when John lived and baptized there.
It is indeed a wilderness.
It’s from there that John extended his ministry, calling for conversion and baptism, and from where his popularity grew among the people.
His popularity spiked the curiosity of the Jews in Jerusalem, and so they sent a representation of Levites to question John. John’s response is recorded in the Gospel of St. John:
I’ve been asking myself, if I lived in that time and place, whether I would have listened to the “voice in the wilderness” or labeled John the Baptist a crazy man and gone my own way.
And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites [to him] to ask him, “Who are you? he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Messiah. So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ (Jn 1:19-21)
It’s one thing to pay attention to an obviously learned person – a scholar, perhaps or a clergyman, for example. But, to wander into the wilderness to listen to the message of a stranger draped in camel’s hair who lived on locusts and honey who tells me I can go to heaven if I let him dunk me in the river?
And then he’d tell me,
“One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)
I’d like to think I would have listened to that voice in the wilderness then. At least I pray that I would have.
In my meditations about the Nativity of John the Baptist, I’m praying that I’ll listen to him now.
He’s still there, in the wilderness of this crazy world that pulls me both toward the holy and toward the sinful all at the same time. He’s calling me to re-conversion, to be re-baptized in Christ not with water but with the Holy Spirit.
When I traveled to Israel with the Catholic Press Association last year, I had the privilege of seeing Ein Karem, where the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth still exists. It’s nothing more than a small cave dug into the side of the mountain. It is meager, indeed. The contrast struck me – like our Savior, John the Baptist was born and lived in simplicity. Both were given a monumental mission for the salvation of mankind.
From his birth in the simplicity of Ein Karem to his ministry in the wilderness, John’s only task was to make way for Christ.
Would I have listened to that voice if I’d lived in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago? Would I listen to it now?
Would you like to see the Jordan River for yourself? Then come with me to the Holy Land January 11-21, 2016 on my pilgrimage: “Praying for Peace in Our Hearts, Our Homes, and Our World!” Find out more here.
Image: Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Marge Fenelon. Do not use without permission.