On the Feast of the John The Baptist: A Strange and Wonderful, Though Long Delayed Answer

On this feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist we celebrate the Birth of the final Prophet of the Old Testament. He stood at the culmination of the Old Covenant and emphatically pointed to the New. He drew back the curtain on all that that the ancient prophets longed to see. His birth is a great harbinger of a new epoch, the final age of Man. When he points to Christ and then steps back, we see the Old Covenant yield to the new. One era is ending another is beginning. This birthday bespeaks a coming sea change, something is ending, something greater is beginning. Types, symbols and shadows are about to give way to true reality they signified.

A great and dramatic moment in this Old giving way to the New occurs when the two meet by the riverside. (It is true, they had already met in utero, as Mary and Elizabeth shared company. John prefigured this riverside meeting by dancing for joy in his mother’s womb at the nearness of Christ). But the drama of this moment at the riverside cannot be overestimated for John supplies a strange and wonderful answer to a question asked 2,000 years before. And the answer he supplies to this question signals that the new has arrived.

To understand the moment we must go back in time to approximately 1900 BC. The place is a hillside called Moriah where Jerusalem would later be built. Abraham has been commended there by God where he has been told to prepare to kill him in sacrifice. Upon arriving at the foot of Moriah the text says,

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”  “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb…? (Gen 22:6-8)

Do not miss the great foreshadowing here: A long promised son, about to die, carrying wood upon his shoulders ascending the very hillside where Jerusalem and Golgotha will one day be located. Yes this is a wondrous foreshadowing.

And then comes the great question to his Father: “But, Where is the Lamb?” Yes, indeed, where is the Lamb who will die so that I don’t have to? Where is the Lamb whose blood will save my life? Where is the Lamb?

Now you know the rest of that story. An angel stopped Abraham and then pointed to a ram, with it’s horns in the thicket. And you may be excused for saying, “Aha, God did provide the Lamb. End of story.” But truth be told, this ram, this lamb cannot really save Isaac. Because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb 10:4) Isaac’s death is merely postponed and then it is off to Sheol with him where he will lie and wait for the True Lamb who alone can give eternal life.

And so, that question got wafted up on to the breeze and echoed down through the Centuries that followed: “But, where is the Lamb…..where is the Lamb?”

And now we are standing by the banks of the Jordan River 19 Centuries later and John the Baptist sees a full grown man coming toward him and says a very strange thing: “Look! There is the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29) Yes, there is the  true Lamb who alone can take away our sins. John the Baptist supplies a strange and wonderful, though long delayed answer to a question Isaac asked 1,900 years before. Where is the Lamb?  THERE is the Lamb!

Happy birthday of John the Baptist. His birth is the culmination of an age, an era, a Covenant. He is the last of the Old Testament Prophets. His birth signals an end and a beginning. The Book of Hebrews says By calling this covenant “new,” [God] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear (Hebrews 8:13). Hence John would later say, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase; I must decrease. (John 3:29-30).

Today John the Baptist is born who will usher in the new by answering the most significant question ever posed: “But where is the Lamb?”

42 Replies to “On the Feast of the John The Baptist: A Strange and Wonderful, Though Long Delayed Answer”

  1. I have always loved foreshadowing in these stories, but I love how you tie the question and answer! Wonderful reflection.

    But I am confused by this: “Isaac’s death is merely postponed and then it is off to Sheol with him where he will lie and wait for the True Lamb who alone can give eternal life.” Although the Supreme Sacrifice has not yet been made, Jesus can still grant eternal life because he was in existence from the very beginning. God knows everything, so He knew He’d sacrifice his Son.

    Also all through the Old Testament, we see how God is pleased when the priests make sin offerings to cleanse the people, so the sacrifices of the animals do matter. But I’m curious. Since Jewish people do not believe Jesus is the Lamb of God, and their temple is destroyed, how do they adhere to their traditions and customs? How do they atone for sins?

    ps: Charlton Heston made the best John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

    1. The gates of heaven had not yet been opened because Christ had not yet offered Himself up on the cross. Therefore those who had died prior to that moment of history went to “Abraham’s Bosom” (Luke 16:22-23), called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek.

      With regards to the offerings of the Old Covenant and the sacrifice of Christ, the author of the letter to the Hebrews provides a full explanation:

      “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb 10:1-3)

      …but the High Priest and Sacrifice of the New Covenant is infinitely greater than that of the Old:

      “He is able to save *completely* those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever” (Heb 7:25-28)

      So God *was* pleased with the offerings of the Old Covenant, but they were always inadequate prototypes for the perfect offering which would be offered by Christ.

      I guess if you were to couch it in modern-day Catholic terms I guess you could describe the offerings of the Old Covenant as Sacramentals, rather than Sacraments(? <– Heresy police, please feel free to correct me here if this is a bad explanation)

      With regards to modern-day Judaism, they adhere to their traditions and customs as best they can. Since the Temple can only be in Jerusalem it cannot be built anywhere else. This is why Orthodox Jews long to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple ("Next year in Jerusalem!). As a consequence, modern Judaism is Torah and Synagogue-based (Pharisee) rather than Temple-based (Sadducee). The beginning of this metamorphosis can be seen in the Council of Jamnia.

  2. Beautiful! I did a paper on the subject of Issac as a foreshadowing of Christ. Even the ram’s horns stuck in a thicket point to Christ’s crown of thorns! God is such an amazing storyteller!

  3. Keep shouting in the dessert. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Happy 21st Anniversary. Thank you for say “yes” FIAT!

  4. Remember, Vijaya, that one must cooperate with God to be saved; and God waits for that cooperation actually to save (notwithstanding His foreknowledge), even if that cooperation cannot come until after death. The predecessors of the Lamb could not cooperate fully and sufficiently in their salvation until after the Lamb had been slain, had descended into Sheol (i.e., Hades or the Limbus Patrum) where they waited, and had preached the Gospel to them (CCC, Para. 633f.). Those properly disposed could then respond to Him and His message and be saved (CCC, Para. 635).

    God was pleased with the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant for two reasons, viz., because the sacrifices prefigured the one, perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of the New Law and making those sacrifices while the Old Covenant still existed was an act of obedience and worship to God. God imputed a temporary righteousness to the Jews and kept them in covenant with Him because of that obedience. God made it clear, however, that animal sacrifices did not otherwise have value and that He valued much more the sacrifice of a broken spirit and a contrite heart (see Pss. 50 & 51 and Joel 2:13).

    The sacrifices of the Old Covenant, as the Letter to the Hebrews explains, were only a preparation for the sacrifice of the New Covenant and the salvation it offered. Animal sacrifices were not meant to continue after the definitive sacrifice of the Lamb; and they have not continued since the destruction of the Temple. The Jews cannot make the sin offerings commanded in the Torah without the Temple, or at least the Tabernacle (see Lev. & Deut., passim). The Letter to the Hebrews was written, in great part, to explain that God had allowed the destruction of the Temple ultimately because Temple worship was no longer needed or even desirable.

  5. Although the AV/KJB, NJB, NIV and NRSV all give “lamb” at Gen.22:7f., the NAB prefers “sheep”, which breaks the link you have so admirably demonstrated.

  6. In the 2nd coming of our Lord Jesus Christ those that died before He was born and does that repented the last minute (like the thief on the Cross who said to Christ to remember me ) will have an opprtunity to be tested and either accept or deny Him. The Jews, the moslems, people all over the world that never heard of Christ beofre dying. Christ said “no one come to the Father except through him. Christ is resurrection and life. You’ll either accept Him and reign with Him forever or deny Him and go to hell. It’s that simple!

    1. Yes, I think that those who have not fully understoood their obligation to accept Him will be given that chance. I suspect that, for those who died before his coming were already given that cahnce when Chirst descended to the dead and preached to those detained there.

  7. If I might offer a reflection parallel to yours, Monsignor:?

    In the Vulgate, Abraham’s reply to Isaac’s ingenuous question is:- “Deus providebit sibi victimam holocausti fili mi” (God will provide a holocaust victim for Himself, my son). Not “sheep’ or “lamb”, but “victima” which, like “hostia”, means a live human or animal sacrificial victim. The ambiguity in the Vulgate could be reproduced even more strikingly in English by “kid”.

    Abraham’s sacrifice is mentioned in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer 1) alongside those of Abel and Melchisadech, as types of the supreme offering:- “sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam”.

    For God’s role in actually providing the victim Himself, compare Zeph.1:7:- “praeparavit Dominus hostiam; sanctificavit vocatos suos” (The Lord has prepared a sacrificial victim; He has sanctified His guests).

    And note Simeon’s prayer on seeing the Infant Jesus brought by His parents to the Temple (Lk.2:30f.):- “viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum/ quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum” (my eyes have seen Your salvation which You [have] prepared in the sight of all the peoples).

    All three scriptural texts are, in some way, alluded to in Eucharistic Prayer 4, shortly after the “Mysterium fidei”:-

    “Respice, Domine, in Hostiam quam Ecclesiæ tuæ ipse parasti”

    ICEL 2008 missed the precision of “hostiam” by translating:- “Look, O Lord, upon the Sacrifice which You Yourself have provided for Your Church”.
    (cf. ICEL 1973 “Lord, look upon this sacrifice which you have given to your Church” where the single word “given” obliterated the scriptural allusions).

    Or is this too fanciful?

    1. THis is very good. I am puzzled by Jerome’s translation however and wonder if he were referring to a variant text. But nevertheless, your reflection follows carefully that tradition and weaves many things together well.

  8. A miscellany of observations:

    That interesting Jewish Dutch Biblical scholar, Dr. M. Reisel, in his helpful transcription of the Hebrew with annotated translation of Genesis notes verse 8 (just after where Monsignor’s quotation stops) can be translated ” ‘God dedicates for Himself the lamb: My son is to become the (burnt) offering!’ And they both went on (now, too) ,of one mind” (my translation of the Dutch), indicating that Isaac did not resist when he learned this, but that father and son are of one mind in this testing. That is, the Hebrew supports (though not absolutely determining) – and, he argues.makes the best sense understood as – seeing that Isaac is a willing sacrifice. I wonder, if one might (as it were) further provide another set of quotation marks and see Abraham as (unbeknownst, prophetically) quoting the Father, “My Son shall become the Sacrifice!” (Or is that an exegetical commonplace I have simply not yet encountered?)

    It is noteworthy that, in the development of the liturgical calendar, among saints only the Theotokos and St. John have Feasts of their Birthday in ‘the orfdinary sense’ as well as of their ‘dies natalis’ in the sense of their ‘birth’ out of this earthly life (or so I understand): I suppose one could even note a sort of further parallel in the Feasts Conceptionis and (with reference to St. John) Visitationis (though St, John is there an older unborn baby than Our Lady, single-celled at her conception).

    Tangentially, with reference to ‘Sheol’, I know Origen suggests (On Matt. xii.43) that at the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah talk with Our Lord and then, perhaps, return to the place whence they have come to communicate the words which Jesus spoke to those who were to be benefited by Him almost immediately – with an eye to Matt. 27:52-53. Is there any traditional consensus to any distinction of place and/or condition of Enoch and Elijah prior to Christ’s death and Resurrection (or, for that matter, since), seeing that they did not (obviously) die bodily?

    Is it far-fetched to see (also in the falling together of this Feast of St. John with the turning of the solar year to its ‘decline’) not only a revelation of “the culmination of an age, an era, a Covenant”, but also of the earthly – and presumably also universal – Creation through the Incarnation being fufilled in the Resurrection?

    1. AH, I really like this last point linking the Solstice to this feast. Thank you too for the rich exegesis you also presented. It is a true fact that there are many layers going on here!

  9. Today is my Dad’s(who is named John)88th birthday, I will print this out for him 🙂

  10. To young children, John the Baptist as Final Prophet of the Old Testament is waaaay over their heads.

    To them, he is the Guy Who Ate Bugs.

    1. St. John the Baptist’s alleged comsumption of bugs is regarded by some as a common misconception. I grew up in a community where many members of a certain ethnic group favoured St. John as their patron saint so, just before his feast day most delicatesons carried ripe carob bean pods listed as St. John’s bread. It seems that bean plants which grow in tree form are nicknamed “locusts trees.” The gleditsia triacanthos has a high sugar content in its pod so, it’s commonly called the honey locust, and the carob bean tree tends to grow wild around the Middle East and is commonly called the wild locust. Since it is readily available where St. John lived and is an excellent source of protein it could well have been a major food in his diet.

      1. Matthew 3:4 has ‘akrides’, Mark 1:6 ‘akridas’, both plural forms of ‘akris’, ‘grasshopper’. One of the two little student dictionaries I have to hand notes that the word has been used ‘since Homer’, but neither give a derived or applied sense that refers to ‘locust trees’ (the Latin has ‘locustae’ and ‘locustas’ (with the Nestle-Aland ‘editio vicesima secunda’ giving variant spellings beginning with ‘lu-‘; ‘locusta’ has a secondary meaning of ‘lobster’, but if the Jordan has ‘crawdads’, I wonder if they are kosher?). So, we need to find ancient references to an applied – plant – sense of ‘akpris’/’locusta’, if any are known. I once saw a cookbook entitled ‘Why not eat insects?’: I wish I had bought a copy. An in-law thoroughly enjoyed being treated to fried grubs in the Pacific during World War II – till he found out what they were!

      2. I thank David for his comments and see again how the path to truth is not always an easy one but, as Christ assured us in John 8:32, worth the effort. I haven’t heard any hard historical data or scientific evidence on the carob bean version; only the folkore of some of Saint John’s fans so; I’ll keep an eye out for further information on the matter as I rummage around learning materials.
        I had tended to assume that that the folklore which came to me as a child was the final answer so I am especially grateful because I was a little concerned that I may have been trying to set myself on some sort of intellectual pedestal and a degree of human imperfection revealed in me may well have done some good.

  11. The priest who celebrated Mass this evening (June 24th) pointed out that something John the Baptist said is repeated in every single Mass throughout the world, every day. “Behold the Lamb of God…” Wow! No other saint can claim that. Something to ponder and to thank God for.

  12. I never knew the story of Abraham and Isaac was paralleled with John the Baptist and Jesus. Thank you for this article.

  13. Bravissimo St. John the Baptist! I am a big fan. I hope to even catch a glimpse of you one day, from afar, no doubt!

    Darby translation uses “sheep” for the Genesis 22:7, but my favorite translation, Young’s Literal, uses “lamb”, which is apparently and disappointingly not literal, if Young was working from vulgate. I wonder if he was, at least in translating Genesis 22? Anyone?

  14. Most interesting and inspiring Msgr. I also marvel at some of the responses and their insights.
    I’m usually half asleep as I read the New Advent, but when I get to your interpretations I’m wide awake.

  15. Dear Monsignor and fellow-readers,

    Dr. M. Reisel’s Genesis transcription gives the last clause of 22:7 – Isaac’s ‘lamb question’ – as

    weAJJJÊH haSEH le’OLAH

    and translates haSEH as ‘the lamb’

    Rahlfs’s Septuaginta (editio septima, 1962) gives ‘tò próbaton’ [my transcription]

    The Greek(-Dutch) dictionaries I have to hand, translate that as “sheep” (Muller-Thiel-De Boer notes also a derived sense “as symbol of softness/meekness [zachtheid] and naivete”)

  16. I should, perhaps, have added that John 1: 29 and 36 both have ‘amnos’ for ‘Lamb’ in the Greek

  17. For a further precursor of the New Covenant one may consider Psalm 22; especially verse 7 “…they hurl insults,…” verse 16 “…a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.” and 18 “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”

  18. Have been going thru this article and found it very informing. I have learnt something new today even when i thought i knew. thank you for this site may The LIVING GOD, JEHOVAH, bless you always. Sometimes i will wish i had been there seeing John The Baptist doing his work

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