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What Can We Learn from John the Baptist?

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By Thomas Smith

Many years ago, long before becoming Catholic, I was a Mormon missionary. One of my most memorable moments was an exchange I had with a passionate Christian on her doorstep. In our conversation, she told us she belonged to the Baptist church. I asked, "Why did you choose the Baptist sect from the thousands of denominations out there?" She confidently replied, "Well, if John was a Baptist, then that's good enough for me." She was dead serious! In her mind, the fiery figure we meet at the beginning of the Gospels was, himself, a member of the Baptist denomination. He was "John the Baptist" after all.

Her remarks obviously revealed a disconnect with both Christian history and the historical figure of the New Testament. Sometimes in our longing to "get to Jesus" in the Gospels, we, too, can fail to connect with St. John. As such, we may overlook all that his words and works can teach us. The Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is a yearly reminder of his importance in God's plan. He is one of my favorite New Testament figures, and according to Jesus, he was the greatest man to have ever lived (Lk 7:28).

There are many lessons we can learn from St. John. Therefore, I want to reflect on a few simple principles that can help us participate more fully in the Church's call for a New Evangelization.

Purpose. Saint John was clear about his purpose: to prepare the way of the Lord (Mt 3:3). He was clearing a path for others to find Jesus. "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth" (Lk 3:5). This poetic language reminds us that there are many obstacles that others face on their journey to Jesus. For example, fear of God, a resistance to religion, or the bad examples set by some Christians. Part of evangelization is helping people work through these spiritual speed bumps that have kept them from meeting Jesus. On another level, this language invites us to ask a question much closer to home: "What behaviors, patterns of thinking, or attitudes do I possess that may be obstacles to another encountering Christ in me?" As we grow in holiness and are healed of our own sinfulness, our life can become a helpful road sign along their path to Christ.

Preaching. Saint John's constant cry was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 3:2). It seems that repentance has fallen out of fashion for many. Other than during Lent, we rarely hear about it. And yet, it was not only the core message of John but also of Jesus (Mt 4:17; Lk 24:47). We often focus on repentance as a turning from sin, and it certainly is that. But more importantly it is turning to Someone — to Jesus. God in Christ puts the kingdom of God within our reach, "at hand," and with it the true joy, purpose, and freedom that God wants every human person to experience. And that's Good News! How could we ever shrink from sharing something so beautiful and exciting?

Passion. If I were to use a single word to describe St. John it would be "passionate." His fiery faith drew people to him, and through him, to Christ. There is something contagious about a person like that. What fueled his inner fire? He was animated by God's love. I look back at my journey to the Catholic faith and it was filled with people who passionately loved God and that love kindled my heart to be open to Jesus and His Church. One of my regular prayers is, "May the love which burns within the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, enkindle my heart today. Give me Your burning love for souls." Whenever my faith flags, or I resist sharing my faith, I pray that prayer.

Personal witness. Finally, the Good News isn't simply communicating faith facts to others. It is a personal proclamation. From the banks of the Jordan River, St. John cried, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29). We are reminded of this powerful witness every time we celebrate Holy Mass. In fact, we make his words our own as we gaze upon Jesus present in the Eucharist. Saint John's own disciples heard this confession repeated later, and consequently followed Jesus (Jn 1:36-37). There is nothing quite so powerful as personal witness. I constantly encourage Catholics to reflect upon their faith and compose a simple personal testimony to share with others. It can be 100 words or less, a short paragraph. Whether you are a cradle Catholic or a convert, you have a story. Your story is important and can be life-changing to another. It need not be dramatic. I'm a Catholic today because of the personal witness of others. When you have your story committed to memory, you can share clearly and confidently during the natural moments of your day. Saint Peter put it well: "Be ready always to give an answer to anyone who asks you a reason of the hope that is within you, with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15).

Saint John the Baptist, pray for us!

Thomas Smith was a Protestant minister who was received into the Catholic Church in 1996. He is the co-author of Revelation: The Kingdom Yet to Come and a curriculum author and international presenter for the Great Adventure Bible Timeline. He has taught as an adjunct professor at the St. Francis School of Theology in Denver, and is the former director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School. He's a well-traveled and dynamic speaker, bringing a wealth of experience and insight on the Word of God to audiences across the U.S. He'll lead the Holy Land pilgrimage with Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, this coming September. Visit Mr. Smith's website: gen215.org/

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Dolly - Jun 24, 2012

Thank you for this reflection. What strikes me while reading this article is that right from the beginning,John the Baptist already had a deep relationship with God, one whom he already "encountered." Maybe, his knowledge of God came from his parents and religious disciplines of his time, that led to his intimacy and faithfulness in his relationship with him. He, then, was privileged to see what God was doing in the world, hence, he could shout to the world about the "Lamb of God" who already was in their midst.
I did not have a strong religious training while growing up, neither did I really have some outstanding role models. But it happened that one day, I had a sudden and powerful experience of God's presence and reality that brought about some enlightenment, and I suddenly saw what a sinner I was. That, in turn, led me to repentance due to the passionate love that I felt God had/has for me. And having owned my sinfulness and experienced forgiveness, I couldn't help but tell people about the truth of God's unconditional love and the bliss offered to those who accept his grace. Hence, I believe that Jesus came to manifest God's love and invite us to experience it. And once we accept and come before his presence, we suddenly go down on our knees in repentance, which, really and paradoxically speaking, is a joy or bliss borne out of this great encounter.