Monday, January 5, 2015

Word for the Day: Baptist

The word Baptist doesn’t occur in today’s readings, like many of the words that catch my attention in the early morning, but it is implied. We read that John [the Baptist] was “arrested” and that when Jesus heard this he “withdrew to Galilee.”

During Advent and Christmastide we hear a lot about John the Baptist, alias the Precursor, the cousin of Jesus of Nazareth. What else was he? What else was there between them—the last Prophet and the Messiah he foretold? Cousins they were, yes, but also friends, probably. If so, what a friendship!

I had a rare opportunity to doze an extra hour or so this morning, as I am visiting my elderly mother whose daily habits sometimes can be dozed around. Before dozing I read the Catholic Encyclopedia (CE) entry on John the Baptist. Such a resource makes me happy to be a Catholic, willing to listen to tradition instead of leaning strictly on the spare story lines of the Gospel.

If we pay attention to tradition, we can learn or can at least contemplate:

  • Where Mary may have traveled after the Annunciation, when she visited her "cousin" Elizabeth in the "hill country." CE says "A tradition, which can be traced back to the time before the Crusades, points to the little town of Ain-Karim, five miles southwest of Jerusalem."
  • The family relationships that made Mary and Elizabeth cousins.  Here CE tell us what St. Hippolytus said about this subject. Since he lived fewer than 200 years after Jesus and John, it might be interesting at least to know what St. H. thought he knew. We are farther removed from the facts, though certainly many of us consider ourselves smarter than some old "martry, bishop, and antipope." (Did you say "antipope"? No, but CE did. Which makes it all so much more interesting to me.)
  • How John got into the desert to begin with. Another hoary old saint, Peter of Alexandria, said he was taken to the desert for the same reason Jesus was taken to Egypt: to flee the wrath of Herod. Whether or not true, and St. Jerome branded it as apocryphal, this legend links Jesus and John freshly in my own mind. 
  • The exact location of John's baptizing ministry. Traditions vary here, with Origen saying one thing, Eusebius another, and still another version suggesting a third location. 
  • The circumstances of John's imprisonment. According to CE, St. Augustine, and perhaps others, weighed in on this question. 
  • The dates of John's birth and decollation. (Had to look that one up. It means beheading, as in removal, de-, of head from neck, coll-.)  Like the Nativity, like the site of John's burial (with or without his head), these dates are impossible to pin down. But again tradition offers much to contemplate. 
Most striking to me was the cult of John the Baptist that sprang up immediately. CE notes:

“The honour paid so early and in so many places to the relics of St. John the Baptist, the zeal with which many churches have maintained at all times their ill-founded claims to some of his relics, the numberless churches, abbeys, towns, and religious families placed under his patronage, the frequency of his name among Christian people, all attest the antiquity and widespread diffusion of the devotion to the Precursor.”

Devotion to the Precursor, the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin and friend, was widespread in the early Christian centuries. This tells me too that my intuition while dozing this morning is not so far from the mark. My intuition was and is that the close friendship between Jesus and John is something worth contemplating. By doing so, we may appreciate John as early Christians clearly did, and better, we may love Jesus as John must have done.

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