Who is a prophet?

He will be great in the sight of the Lord and will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb; and many will rejoice at his birth. (Luke 1:15, 14)

O God,
Who raised up Saint John the Baptist
to make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord,
give Your people, we pray
the grace of spiritual joys
and direct the hearts of all the faithful
into the way of salvation and peace.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever.

Responsorial Psalm
I praise you, for I am wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:14).

Gospel Excerpt
Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, "What, then, will this child be?" For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel. (Luke 1:65-66, 80).”

Who is a prophet? What does a prophet do? Popularly, many have an image of a prophet as an otherworldly guru endowed with some magic-seeing power that gives him or her an ability to predict the future. Fortunately for us, such is NOT the biblical prophet and it certainly does not describe Saint John the Baptist.

The biblical prophet lived and worked in a world familiar with prophecy. In the Ancient Near Eastern world practically every king or queen had a guild or a company of prophets. These prophets acted as counselors or advisors on all sorts of matters pertinent to day-to-day living. At times guilds of prophets contended with each other jockeying for position and prominence in society. Often the counsel or advice rendered was not so much about what was needed for the occasion but a word or two that sounded nice or appealed to the monarch’s pleasure.

In Israel, like so many other aspects of her life in the Ancient Near Eastern world, prophecy was different. Sure there was a need for counsel and advice, but prophecy had another function vital for living the Covenant. In Israel, the prophet (nabi in Hebrew) was one ‘who spoke on behalf of God.’ The prophet tended to be an individual person, not a guild or a school. Unlike the guild prophets throughout the world of that time, Israel’s nabi were called by God. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – to name only a few – did not ‘join’ or sign-up to be a nabi. In fact, many of Israel’s nabi resisted and balked when called by God to speak on His behalf. Israel’s nabi also nurtured an intense, intimate relationship with God and even some of their ‘conversations’ with God sound shocking in their apparent audacity (cf. ‘The Confessions’ of Jeremiah) yet they reveal a profound relationship with God and a willingness to serve Him and the people to whom the prophet is sent.

So what does this have to do with Saint John the Baptist and why are we even celebrating his birth? All four Gospels open in one way or another with the testimony of Saint John. From a Gospel perspective, John is the fulfillment of prophecy and embodies all of Israel’s nabi. The desert living, countenance and demeanor of Elijah, the hope-filled stirring words voiced by Isaiah, the stingingly sharp ‘politically incorrect’ invectives of Jeremiah, the mystic quality of Ezekiel and continuous call to conversion and repentance reminiscent of Hosea – all of these and more are embodied in the “Voice crying out in the desert.”

When we meet the adult John in the Gospels, he noticeably lives life different from other people. The desert is his home, rough animal skins form his not-so-elegant wardrobe, a diet of crunchy locusts and bitter, sticky honey sustains his body and he addresses people who come to him as vipers and they are not offended! In fact, John’s proclamation of God’s word to the crowd – done in a way that is unique to John – stirs the hearts of all to repentance. Even Herod was drawn to John’s preaching. Most importantly, John is the one who recognizes Jesus’ presence and His presence as Savior. As an infant John leapt in the womb when Mary visited Elizabeth. As an adult John exclaimed, “Behold! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29)” and ultimately bears witness to this Lamb with his own life. From birth to death and at all times in-between, John is a model disciple. Life is never about himself, it is about the Lamb of God: “He [Jesus] must increase, I must decrease.”

As the one who brings the Old Testament prophetic ministry to it fulfillment, John challenges present day disciples of Jesus Christ. As people baptized in the blood of the Lamb, we are constituted priest, prophet and king. As prophets of the Lamb (we’ll save priest and king for another day), the Lord has given each a word to speak and has fashioned each as a unique “polished arrow” ready to point out Christ as Savior. Pauline wisdom is helpful here: “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29)” and “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another [in] psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father (Ephesians 5:18-20).”

Because the Lord has given His word to the baptized, there can be no room for any other type of word. As good as this wisdom is, there is more to this than mere verbal etiquette. For those baptized in the Blood of the Lamb, we confess that the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us!” The word entrusted to us is the Word and as such each thought, each word, each action must be that of Jesus Christ. We ‘speak’ the Word by the manner of our living.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give You thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

In His Precursor, Saint John the Baptist,
we praise Your great glory,
for You consecrated him for a singular honor
among those born of women.

His birth brought great rejoicing;
even in the womb he lept for joy
at the coming of human salvation.
He alone of all the prophets
pointed out the Lamb of redemption.

And to make holy the flowing water,
he baptized the very author of Baptism
and was privileged to bear Him supreme witness
by the shedding of his blood.

And so, with the Powers of heaven,
we worship You constantly on earth,
and before Your majesty
without end we acclaim ...