Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint John the Baptist, The Precursor of Our Divine Redeemer

detail of a stained glass window of Saint John the Baptist, date and artist unknown; Church of Saint Paul, Yellow Springs, Ohio; photographed on 24 December 2015 by Nheyob; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 28.

“Unloose, great Baptist, our sin-fettered lips,
That with enfranchised voice we may proclaim
The miracles of thy transcendent life,
Thy deeds of matchless fame.”

He is great indeed who is great before God, and such was the glorious John the Baptist. The Church usually celebrates the festival of a saint on the day of his death, which is his birthday to eternal life. But our noble Saint is excepted from this rule, because he was sanctified in his mother’s womb, and came into the world pure and holy.

The birth of this illustrious man, who was sent as a pioneer to prepare the way for Christ, may be ranked with the wonders of history. It is miraculous, and was ushered in with many prodigies.

“There was,” says the sacred writer, “in the days of Herod, King of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia, and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth.

“And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame.

“And they had no son; for that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were well advanced in years.

“And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the Temple of the Lord, and all the multitude of the people was praying without at the hour of incense, and there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.

“And Zachary seeing him was troubled, and fear fell upon him; but the angel said to him: ‘Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

“‘And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity, for he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb.

“‘And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.

“‘And he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias, that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.’

“Zachary said to the angel: ‘Whereby shall I know this, for I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years?’

“An the angel answering, said to him: ‘I am Gabriel, who stands before God; and I am sent to speak to thee, and to bring thee these good tidings.

“‘And behold thou shalt be dumb, and shalt not be able to speak until the day wherein these things shall come to pass; because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time.’

“And the people were waiting for Zachary, and they wondered that he tarried so long in the Temple. And when he came out he could not speak to them, and they understood that he had seen a vision in the Temple. And he made signs to them, and remained dumb.

“And it came to pass, after the days of his office were accomplished, he departed to his own house.”

Elizabeth, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, was honored by a visit from the Mother of God, in which, at the presence of the Divine Redeemer of mankind, the little Baptist was sanctified. On this occasion the blessed child, yet unborn, was, by an extraordinary privilege, favored with the use of reason, and was the first among men who beheld Christ, and knew Him before his eyes saw the light of this world. His joy was so inexpressible at beholding Him whom the ancient prophets had only foreseen in spirit, that he leaped with delight in his mother’s womb.

John was born about six months before the birth of Christ. “The friends and neighbors of Elizabeth,” says Saint Luke, “heard that the Lord had shown His great mercy towards her, and they congratulated with her.

“And it came to pass that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father’s name, Zachary. And his mother answering, said: ‘Not so – but he shall be called John.’

“And they said to her: ‘There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called.

“And demanding a writing-table, he wrote, saying: ‘John is his name.’ And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.

“And fear came upon all their neighbors; and all these things were noised abroad over all the hill-country of Judea. And all they that had heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying: ‘What a one, think you, shall this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him”

In order to preserve his innocence spotless, and to improve the wonderful graces which he had received from Heaven, Saint John was directed by the Holy Ghost to lead an austere and contemplative life in the wilderness, in the continual exercise of prayer and penance. Thus he lived from infancy till he was thirty years of age.

How much does this precaution of a great Saint, who was strengthened by such uncommon graces and privileges, condemn the rashness of those silly parents who expose the precious souls of their children, in the slippery time of youth, to the contagious air of a hundred dangers, and, above all, to that of worldly, wicked company!

When Saint John had reached the age of thirty years, 9 he was perfectly qualified to enter on his sublime mission. He was the glorious herald of the Redemption. He was to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. Clothed in the garments of penance, he raised his mighty voice; and the people of a sin-stained land listened to him in awe and admiration.

“In those days,” writes the first of the Evangelists, “cometh John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea, and saying: ‘Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

“For this is he that was spoken of by Isaias the prophet, saying: A voice of one crying in the desert. Prepare ye the way of the Lord – make straight His paths.

“And the same John had his garment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

“Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and the country about the Jordan; and they were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

“And seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them: ‘Ye brood of vipers, who hath showed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruit worthy of penance.

“‘And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham

“‘For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that doth not yield good fruit shall be cut down, and cast into the fire.

“‘I indeed baptize you in water unto penance – but He that shall come after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear. He shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire.

“‘Whose fan is in his hand, and He will thoroughly cleanse His floor, and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.’

“Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John to be baptized by him

“But John stayed Him, saying: ‘I ought to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me?’

“And Jesus answering, said to him: ‘Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice.’ Then he suffered Him .

“And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water; and lo! the heavens were opened to him; and he saw the spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him

“And behold a voice from heaven, saying: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.'”

The kindness, charity, and angelic life of Saint John the Baptist won the hearts of all, and his zeal and manly energy gave him a commanding influence over the minds of his hearers. He toiled on, having only God and His holy will in view. He boldly reproved the vices of all classes of men. With an undaunted authority he raised His voice against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the profanity of the Sadducees, the grasping extortion of the publicans, the brutality and injustice of the soldiers, and the grossly scandalous life of King Herod himself.

King Herod, urged on by a criminal passion, had, contrary to all laws human and divine, married Herodias, his sister-in-law, the wife of his brother Philip, who was yet alive. Saint John boldly reprehended the royal sinner. “It is not lawful,” said the holy Precursor, “for thee to take thy brother’s wife.”

Knowing him to be a blessed man, Herod feared and reverenced John. He even did many things by his advice. But the scandalous connection which he kept up with the guilty Herodias was a sore spot which he could not bear to have touched; and, of course, he was highly of fended at the liberty which the great preacher took in that direction. Thus, while he respected him as a Saint, he hated him as a censor; and felt a violent struggle in his own breast between his veneration for the sanctity of the prophet, and the pointed reproaches of his nameless conduct.

Herodias, however, acted like an enraged fury of hell. She left no artifice untried to take away the life of him who spoke words of warning and wisdom, and raised his pure, angelic finger to point at her shameless career. The wretched woman clamored for his death, and, to content her, Herod cast the Saint into prison.

“And having a mind to put him to death,” says Saint Matthew, “he feared the people; because they esteemed him as a prophet.

“But on Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced before them; and pleased Herod.

“Whereupon he promised, with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him.

“But she, being instructed before by her mother, said: ‘Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist.’

“And the king was struck sad; yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given.

“And he sent, and beheaded John in prison.

“And his head was brought in a dish; and it was given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother.

“And his disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus.”

Thus died the holy, humble, and illustrious Precursor of the Divine One, about two years and three months after his entrance upon his public ministry, and a year before the death of our Blessed Redeemer. He was a martyr, a virgin, a doctor, a prophet, and more than a prophet. His immortal eulogy comes from the sacred lips of Christ Himself.

“Jesus,” writes the Evangelist, “began to say to the multitudes concerning John: ‘What went you out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind?

“‘But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings.

“‘But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea I tell you, and more than a prophet.

“‘For this is he of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before Thy face, who shall prepare the way before Thee.

“‘Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist.'”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint John the Baptist, The Precursor of Our Divine Redeemer”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 23 September 2018. Web. 20 January 2019. <>