On this day we memorialize the death of John the Baptist, the man who introduced Jesus’s ministry to the world and whom Jesus said was the greatest man born among women (Matt 11:11). Yet, despite this accolade from the Son of Man himself, the Gospels tell us that John the Baptist also seems to have wrestled with something that many of us are still wrestling with today: doubt. Yes, even the Baptist, the camel-shirt-wearing, desert dwelling, locust-crunching prophet who calls the crowds that come to him a “brood of vipers,” sat in prison and wondered about whether the “nobody” carpenter from Nazareth was who he said he was.
The Gospels suggest that part of John’s doubt seems to have come from his expectations for Jesus. When John is called by God out of the desert, he announces the coming of the Messiah with metaphors of destruction:
“Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matt 3:10-12)
John’s expectation for the Messiah is that he will cleanse through destruction; that he will rid the world of sin, but in a grandiose, violent way. His metaphors and proclamations are laced with references to fire and culling, suggesting that John envisions Jesus the way we tend to envision John—full of passion, intensity, even a little frightening. When Christ comes to John for baptism, Christ does not condemn John’s vision, but rather Jesus’ ministry adds to the story. Rather than cutting the root from the tree, Jesus invites sinners to dine with him. Rather than shaking his fists from the river, Jesus sits on the mountain top and declares the poor blessed.
Later, when John is imprisoned for publicly condemning the unlawful marriage of Herod, he receives word of Jesus’ latest miracles: the healing of a Centurion’s slave and raising of a widow’s dead son. The Gospels paint an interesting portrait of John’s response.
When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him
with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:2-3)
I can imagine John sitting in the corner of his cell, hearing of these miracles and wondering whether everything he thought about the Carpenter had been wrong. In the darkness of his cell, alone, surely knowing he would soon die, John doubts whether this man who heals is actually the ax he had been expecting.
There are two things that stand out about John’s moment of doubt:
First, John’s response to his doubt is to go to the source himself. John does not sit frustrated and angry, allowing his doubt to grow into resentment or apathy like so many of us do today. He sends his disciples to Jesus directly. John’s response should serve as a model for our own inquiries. Prayer, direct communication with Christ, is necessary to knowing the truth about his identity. Imagine it in terms of a marriage. What if a husband and wife never communicated with one another when they were concerned with the actions of the other? Not only does a potentially problematic action go unaddressed, but the spouse who desires to know the mind of her lover cannot. She risks constructing a faulty image in her head, one that further drives a wedge between herself and her husband. So too do we drive a wedge between ourselves and the Lord when we doubt and leave those doubts untethered by prayer. When we question Christ, when we question our faith, when we question what is right or how to respond to injustice with charity, we should take those questions to prayer and ask for understanding. We should ask to see God as he truly is, not as we want him to be.
The second important thing to note about John’s moment of doubt is Jesus’ response. Matthew reports it this way:
Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.’
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matt 11:7-10).
In his response to John and the crowds, Jesus first reaffirms his own actions, for these are the actions foretold in Scripture of the coming of the Messiah. He does not answer with words, but with deeds, highlighting the truth that “by their fruit will you know them.” Jesus then also seems to chastise the crowd for their judgment of John. “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” Jesus says that John’s vision of Christ is admirable, as it comes from place of virtue and strength. Although John initially sees Jesus only through his own eyes, Jesus recognizes that those eyes earnestly desire the truth and have been well formed. Jesus rewards John for his faith, even if it is imperfect. He does not allow John to remain misguided, but he recognizes John’s effort to know Christ as well as he can and rewards him with the accolade “no greater than.”
On the memorial of his death, let us try to be a little more like John the Baptist. Let us yearn for the Lord. Let us know him in prayer and the sacraments. Let us have the humility to open ourselves and our expectations to revision. Let us place our doubts before the Cross and allow John’s words to guide our prayers:
“He must increase; I must decrease.”
Questions for Reflection: How can moments of doubt make your faith stronger? Is Jesus inviting you to “go to the source” – to come to him in prayer?
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