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When the years of preparation were completed, John traveled to the region of the Jordan south of Lake Tiberias. It was here that he conducted his ministry, preaching to the crowds and baptizing hundreds in the shallow fords of the river. Those who came to be baptized were undoubtedly familiar with the ritual washings prescribed by Jewish law, and some might have known of the Qumran purification rites, but the baptism of John was different. It seems to have been administered only once, and was therefore symbolic of the beginning of a new life and a new order. John emphasized that this new life could only be fulfilled by the Messiah: “I indeed baptize you with water. But one mightier than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Warning, pleading, chastising and correcting, John urged his hearers to make themselves worthy of the kingdom that was at hand. He was fearless and outspoken as he challenged them to forsake their sinful ways. Eventually, it was this very candor that cost John his life.

Herod Antipas, king of Judea, had heard of John and the powerful effect John had on his numerous followers. The political climate was ripe for rebellion, and Herod feared an uprising. In addition, John had publicly denounced Herod for contracting a sinful marriage with his brother’s widow, Herodias. The anger of Herodias and his own self-serving fears led Herod to cast John into prison.

One night when Herod was presiding at a banquet in honor of his birthday, he called for Salome, daughter of Herodias, to dance for the guests. Pleased with her sensuous performance, he promised to give her whatever she asked. Herodias, seizing her opportunity, ordered Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod granted the request.

John had given his entire life to prepare the way of the Lord. Now that his work was finished, he offered his death as well. Twice God had brought him forth from barren land scarred by deep longing: first from the womb of Mary’s cousin, and then from the stark and prayerful solitude of the forbidding desert. John’s birth and mission symbolized the power of God to bring life out of death and light out of darkness. The voice that came from heaven when John baptized Jesus signified that the Light now walked among men.

Christ Himself spoke strong words in praise of John the Baptist:

“What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold, those who wear fine clothes and live in luxury are in the houses of kings. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ’Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall make ready thy way before thee.’ I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.”

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Clare Tierney is a freelance writer with an interest in Biblical studies and Eastern Church history.

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Tags: Prayers/Hymns/Saints Reflections/Inspirational