John the Baptist

According to Luke, Zecharaiah and Elizabeth were childless, and Elizabeth was considered too old to bear a child. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, however, and told him that his wife would bear a son, and they should name him John. Zechariah did not believe the message, and was rendered speechless until the time of the birth. His relatives wanted the child to also be named Zechariah, but his father wrote: "His name is John", at which point his speech returned. Luke also describes how at the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus, the Angel Gabriel also tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and the child in her womb "leapt for joy" as Mary arrived. It should be noted that the other Gospels have no account of the birth of John the Baptist.

John baptises people in the Jordan and proclaims the coming of one who is greater than him. He tells his followers that whilst he baptises them with water, the one who is to come will "baptise you with the Holy Spirit". He lives the life of a hermit in the desert, and devotes his life to proclaiming the coming of Jesus.


Michael York playing John in "Jesus of Nazareth"

There comes a time when John is baptising people in the River Jordan when he looks up and sees Jesus waiting in line to be baptised. Who can forget that scene in "Jesus of Nazareth" when John sees Jesus for the first time? John protests that he is not worthy to baptise Jesus, but as Jesus insists, he does so. At this point the heavens split open and the Holy Spirit descends upon the head of Jesus as a voice proclaims “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased." Again, the Gospels very significantly in the detail of this event, but there is little doubt that John did baptise Jesus at this time.

Following this, John directed his followers to join Jesus, but he remained critical of those who did not obey God's law - in particular, Herod who had entered into an incestuous relationship with Herodias. Herod was threatened by the very existence of John and had him arrested. During his imprisonment the daughter of Herodias, Salome, is reputed to have danced for Herod who granted her a favour in return. She asked for the head of John at the urging of her mother, and her wish was granted.

The message of John, as a voice calling in the wilderness about the coming of the Saviour, still remains. In the film Godspell, David Haskell portrays John the Baptist and calls to the young people of New York to follow him. The film starts with a blast from a Shofar, a ram's horn, typically used by the Jewish people as a call - whether to battle, or to meet.


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The film then immediately progresses into the iconic song "Prepare ye the Way of the Lord". This is surely the best summation of the meaning of the life of John the Baptist, and it is fitting that the song is now frequently played at church services during Advent as we wait and prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.