Saint John the Baptist: Spiritual Guide for Advent

john the baptist

Few individuals figure so prominently in the accounts of Jesus’s life in the Gospels as John the Baptist, the “friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29), Teacher (Luke 3:12), and, more recently, JBap1 and “Creepy John.”2

Monikers aside, to this day John the Baptist bears witness to the light of the Coming One as his voice continues to resound through the inspired words of the four canonical Gospels.

In the following, we will provide a brief sketch of the figure of John the Baptist as he is presented to us in the Gospels with reference to the Old Testament. We will then consider the treatment of John in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Finally, we will turn our attention to the special prominence given this saint in the Sunday Lectionary readings for the season of Advent. In all this, we will see how the Church presents us with John as an ideal spiritual companion in the weeks leading up to our celebration of Christmas.

St. John the Baptist in Scripture

An exhaustive treatment of the John in the Gospels is beyond the scope of this short article. We will focus our attention on several key Old Testament texts that informed the evangelists’ understanding of John’s life and mission. Attention to these texts is particularly helpful to better understand why John the Baptist is a fitting spiritual guide for the Advent season.

Perhaps the most prominent of these texts comes from the prophet Isaiah: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isa 40:3).

John appears in the wilderness of Judea preaching a message of repentance from sin and baptism to prepare for the coming of one mightier than himself. The imagery of the highway in the wilderness suggests that John’s ministry is an integral part of the New Exodus. Intriguingly, the prophecy in Isaiah speaks of one who prepares the way for the Lord (Yahweh), and yet John’s ministry is clearly a preparation for the coming of Jesus the Messiah.3

Another pair of key Old Testament texts that shape the evangelists’ understanding of John the Baptist are both from Malachi:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Mal 3:1)

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Mal 4:5–6)

The evangelists explicitly apply the language of Malachi 3:1 to John (cf. Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27).4 John is the messenger who is sent by the Lord to prepare his way. As John the evangelist makes clear from the start of his Gospel, John the Baptist was “a man sent from God” (John 1:6).

John’s role is given further specification by the use of the concluding verses in Malachi, which foretell of the coming of (a new) Elijah on the threshold of the day of the Lord. Luke makes the most explicit use of these verses, placing the words of Malachi in the mouth of the angel Gabriel when he announces the mission of John to his father, Zechariah (Luke 1:16–17). The identification of John with Elijah runs deep in the Gospels: Jesus twice speaks of John the Baptist as being the Elijah who is to come (Matt 11:14; Matt 17:10–11; Mark 9:11–13). Furthermore, both Mark and Matthew describe John’s unusual attire—camel’s hair and a leather belt (cf. Matt 3:4; Mark 1:6)—which immediately evoke the description of Elijah the prophet: “He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist” (2 Kgs 1:8).

All three of these Old Testament texts firmly locate John as the divinely commissioned precursor to the Messiah. John’s greatness is to be found in his humility. Many mistake him to be the Messiah, but he always points beyond himself to another: “he who is coming after me is mightier than I” (Matt 3:11). In summing up the testimony of the Gospels about John the Baptist, the words of early Church Father St. Peter Chrysologus seem particularly fitting: John is “messenger to the messengers of Christ, the witness to his witnesses, and the foremost of his promoters.”5

St. John the Baptist in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism highlights John’s role as “precursor, prophet, and baptist.” He is one in a series of people to whom the mystery of the Incarnation is progressively unfolded (CCC 486). John’s prophetic declaration—“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29)—reveals Jesus’s identity as the Isaianic Suffering Servant and the true Paschal Lamb who brings redemption (CCC 608).

CCC 523 sums up the mission of John the Baptist rather well, and is worth quoting here in its entirety:

St. John the Baptist is the Lord’s immediate precursor or forerunner, sent to prepare his way (Acts 13:24; Mt 3:3). “Prophet of the Most High,” John surpasses all the prophets, of whom he is the last (Lk 1:76; cf. 7:26; Mt 11:13). He inaugurates the Gospel, already from his mother’s womb welcomes the coming of Christ, and rejoices in being “the friend of the bridegroom,” whom he points out as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29; cf. Acts 1:22; Lk 1:41; 16:16; Jn 3:29). Going before Jesus “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” John bears witness to Christ in his preaching, by his Baptism of conversion, and through his martyrdom” (Lk 1:17; cf. Mk 6:17–29).

Here the Catechism highlights the shape of John’s prophetic office: he announces the coming of the Messiah and directs his own disciples to him. John is a witness to Jesus Christ in both word and deed. The angel foretold that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Thus, when John first encounters Jesus, both still in the wombs of their mothers, he rejoices at the coming of the Messiah (see Luke 1:41, 44).

Fittingly then, the most extensive single treatment of John in the Catechism can be found in the section dealing with the article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” John’s spirit-filled encounter in the womb with the Incarnate Lord is said to be “a visit from God to his people” (CCC 717). “The fire of the Spirit dwells in [John]” (CCC 718) and “in him, the Holy Spirit concludes his speaking through the prophets” (CCC 719). The Spirit empowers the one who is “the voice” to call God’s people to repentance so that they might welcome the Lord fully at his coming. Indeed, “with John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to man of ‘the divine likeness,’ prefiguring what he would achieve with and in Christ” (CCC 720). Empowered and illumined from the start of his life with the gift of God’s own Spirit, John the Baptist became “a burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35).

verbum 10 is here

St. John the Baptist, Companion for Advent

John the Baptist’s position as spiritual guide and companion for our Advent pilgrimage is perhaps best seen in the Fourth Gospel. For it is in the prologue of John’s Gospel that we read:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6–8)

John the Baptist is given the honor of being the only named witness to the Incarnate Word in the prologue of the fourth Gospel. The Baptizer is divinely commissioned to turn others to the light of Christ. At a few specific moments during the liturgical year, the Church gives particular attention to the figure and ministry of John the Baptist and the ways in which he points us not to himself, but to Christ. Most notably, the Church marks John’s entrance into this world each year on June 24—the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist—followed by a celebration of his entrance into the life of the world to come every August 29—the Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist. And naturally, the Baptist gets some attention every Second Sunday of Ordinary Time for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

But noteworthy is John’s prominence in the Sunday readings of the Advent season. The Gospel readings for the First Sunday of Advent focus on Christ’s Second Coming (forming a natural bridge with the feast of Christ the King the week prior. The Gospel readings on the Fourth Sunday of Advent turn their gaze to events leading up to the birth of Jesus, focusing on the annunciations to Joseph (Year A), Mary (Year B), and the Visitation (Year C).

Sandwiched between these are two Sundays devoted to the ministry and preaching of John the Baptist. The Church devotes half of the Advent season attending to the herald of the Messiah. In the three-year lectionary, all four Gospels are proclaimed, allowing the Spirit-filled voice in the wilderness to cry out anew.

Second Sunday of Advent

  • Alleluia Verse: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths: all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4, 6).
  • Year A: Matthew 3:1–12
  • Year B: Mark 1:1–8
  • Year C: Luke 3:1–6

Third Sunday of Advent

  • Alleluia Verse: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor” (Isa 61:1; cited in Luke 4:18)
  • Year A: Matthew 11:2–11
  • Year B: John 1:6–8, 19–28
  • Year C: Luke 3:10–18

The logic of the readings for the Sundays of Advent, and their connection with the life and ministry of John the Baptist, are captured well in CCC 524:

When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming (cf. Rev 22:17). By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Every year, the season of Advent places the Church imaginatively in a time BC.6

Advent is a season in which all the members of the Body of Christ are invited to hear John’s summons to repent as a fitting preparation for the coming of the Lord. John invites each of us to embrace his own self-emptying posture as we await the coming of Jesus: “he must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). In these words of the Baptist, we have a striking encapsulation of the Advent season and a challenging call to be conformed to Jesus, who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7).

We would be remiss if we did not conclude with St. Augustine’s striking interpretation of these words of John the Baptist. In his preaching, Augustine was fond of highlighting the cosmic fittingness of the liturgical celebration of the births of John the Baptist, the voice, and Jesus, the Word.

“But he must grow, I must diminish” (Jn 3:30). This was apparent even from the very births of the Word and of the voice. The Word was born on 25 December, from which point the day begins to increase; the voice was born before the Word of God, when the day begins to diminish. He must grow, he said, I, however, must diminish. And their deaths also showed this. John was diminished by having his head cut off; Christ grew, by being raised up on the cross.7

The heavens do indeed declare the glory of God. At the time of the summer solstice, the Church celebrates the coming of John, who “was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (John 1:8). From that time of year, the days begin to grow shorter, as the light diminishes. Like John, the light decreases. But with the celebration of Christmas near the winter solstice, the days begin to grow longer as the Church celebrates the birth of her Savior, who is the “light of the world” (John 8:12). Whatever one makes of Augustine’s spiritual interpretation of the text, it can serve as a helpful reminder of the humility of John the Baptist, whom the Church gives us as a guide and companion every year (and especially every Advent).

verbum 10 is here
  1. Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Yale University Press, 1993).
  2. As jestingly dubbed by Simon Peter in various episodes of The Chosen.
  3. With regard to Mark’s use of this text, Richard Hays has written, “Isaiah 40 prophesies the coming of the Kyrios (the Lord God) to reign, and Mark appropriates this prophecy to characterize John’s preparation of the way of the coming of Jesus. … Thus, the opening lines of Mark seem to encourage us to understand Jesus’ appearing as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the return of the Lord to Zion.” Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2016), 63–64.
  4. Additionally, there are a few passages where the evangelists seem to allude to this verse in reference to John (cf. Luke 1:17, 76; John 3:28).
  5. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 179, in Selected Sermons of Saint Peter Chrysologus, ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. William B. Palardy, The Fathers of the Church 3 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 354.
  6. As Anglican priest and poet Malcolm Guite so beautifully expresses, “In another sense, Advent itself is always BC! The whole purpose of Advent is to be for a moment fully and consciously Before Christ. In that place of darkness and waiting, we look for his coming and do not presume too much that we already know or have it.” Malcolm Guite, Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 67.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, Sermons 273–305A: On the Saints, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill, The Works of Saint Augustine 8 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1994), 162.
Written by
Kevin Clemens
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Written by Kevin Clemens