In 1323 a young pilgrim bound for Compostela deposited a reliquary at a Dominican convent in Perpignan. Inside the box was a lifelike arm and hand. The Greek inscription identified the contents as those of the Precursor, John the Baptist, querying, “What shall we call you? Prophet, Angel, Apostle, Martyr?” This was pretty convincing of yore, so much so that one enthusiastic queen bit off the thumb and took it home for a convent of nuns to venerate.
Speaking of angels, in the early Church, especially in the East, there was a bit of controversy over the person of John: was he a human or an angel? This was quickly sorted out, but not before the question influenced Eastern Christian iconography. Sometimes in Eastern icons you will see the Baptist bedecked with wings. You can visit a 15th-century icon of this sort in the British Museum. This tradition probably flows from the prophecy in Malachi 3:1: “Behold I send my angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face.”
The Greek ángelos means “messenger, herald”. Our Lord, speaking about John to the multitudes in Matthew 11:10, quoted Malachi and revealed that John was His long foreseen herald. Then the God-Man, the Eternal Word made flesh, called John the greatest man ever born, but He added that the least person in heaven is still greater.
This forerunner and cousin of Christ is considered the last of the prophets of the Old Testament. The details of John’s conception and naming in Luke 1 point to his special role. The Church Fathers believed that John was forgiven Original Sin before his birth when he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice.
In his youth and manhood he prepared to fulfil his role through prayer, fasting, and preaching repentance. John baptised his divine cousin, pointed to Him as the Lamb of God, the victim sacrifice of Passover and victor glorious of Revelation, and then died a martyr’s death in defence of the truth about God’s plan for marriage.
John and his mission (“Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who taketh away the sin of the world”, John 1:29) and his message (“Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, Matthew 3:2) are still important, so much so that Holy Church venerates as feasts both his birth – even with a special Vigil – and his beheading.
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