A Voice Cries Out in the Desert

by Clare Tierney

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Before the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ could begin, fallen mankind had to be prepared for His coming. The books of the Old Testament record the story of this preparation in the words of the men who accomplished it: God’s specially appointed messengers, the prophets. With unceasing urgency and steady faith, they exhorted the people to “make ready the way of the Lord.” Repentance, hope and perseverance were the virtues they preached with words that were sometimes harsh, sometimes gentle, always insistent. The prophets built a bridge between God and His people until at last, rolling from the desert like thunder, came the voice of the prophet who was Christ’s own kinsman, who would bear witness to the beginning of the Messiah’s public mission by baptizing Him in the Jordan. The One whose coming had been foretold would walk among His people, preceded by the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist.

The name John means “God is gracious,” and John’s very birth manifested the mercy of God. His parents, Elizabeth and Zachary, had remained childless into their old age. Among the Jews this was considered a reproach, and it was a source of great sadness to Elizabeth and Zachary. Their sorrow did not turn to bitterness, however; they were faithful to God and to His law.

One day when Zachary, a priest, was burning incense in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. Gabriel instructed Zachary to call the child John, and foretold John’s mission in the drama of salvation: “He shall bring back to the Lord their God many of the children of Israel, … to prepare for the Lord a perfect people.”

Little is known of the early years of John the Baptist, but St. Luke relates that “the child grew and became strong in spirit; and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” Clad in the skins of animals, he nourished his body with locusts and wild honey and his soul with constant prayer and penance.

It is possible that John was influenced by the ascetic Qumran community, a sect of Jews who lived a strictly disciplined life in the desert, preparing for the coming of the Lord as prophesied by Isaiah. Members of the Qumran community held all property in common, and together they worked, prayed and studied sacred scripture. They also observed customs such as ritual washing and the sharing of a common religious meal. Whether John actually belonged to the Qumran community is not known, but his message that salvation was at hand finds an echo in the spiritual yearning and devout practices of this desert sect.

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Tags: Prayers/Hymns/Saints Reflections/Inspirational