“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.”
As we prepare to celebrate the Theophany of the Lord, when Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan by St. John the Forerunner, we read today of the work of St. John to prepare the Jewish people for the coming of our Lord. These people had been blessed by God to have the prophets that not only gave an example of a holy way of life, but also warned and instructed the Jewish people about God’s commandments and punishments for disobedience.
Sadly, with this great privilege, many did not appreciate it and even began to boast in the privilege of simply being born as sons of Abraham. We as Christians often are tempted to do the same. We sometimes claim all of the blessings of Christians simply because we have been baptized and attend Church, forgetting that to truly benefit from membership in the Church, we must apply what we have been given in our daily lives by constantly growing in humility and love.
As our Lord was preparing to begin his public ministry, He had St. John begin to get the Jewish people ready to accept the teachings of Christ. He was about to teach deeper truths that were only understood in shadows by the Law of Moses, and did not want to scandalize anyone, so he had the greatest follower of the Law begin to baptize in a similar way that Christ would require.
St. John began to teach deeper truths leading to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He leveled the mountains and valleys, making straight paths in the souls of people by teaching the need for humility. Those that exalt themselves will be brought down by God and those that lower themselves before God and man will be rewarded and brought up high by God. It was by thinking too much of ourselves that we fell in the garden of Eden, and only by recognizing our lowliness will we be granted access to it again.
We have all been born into this fallen world, we have all sinned and have exalted ourselves high in our pride. It is needed that we repent of this and confess our sin to God. St. John instructed the Jewish people of this need and promised them that soon the Promised One, the Bridegroom to the faithful would come and actually grant forgiveness of the sins of pride that have kept us from Paradise.
We see that St. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather girdle of skin around his loins, showing the need to live a life of asceticism in wearing poor, uncomfortable clothes that help us fight against the sins of vanity and of pleasure seeking, and wearing a dead animal about or loins to represent a chaste life of dying to the beastly sexual impulses that create so many injuries to the souls of mankind.
We are told that he only ate locusts and wild honey while living in the wilderness. St. Bede describes the symbolism of these two items by saying that “On account of their short flight, locusts suggest the Jewish nation’s vacillating mind, by which they were borne up and down between the Lord and idols. The wild honey signifies the sweetness of the natural wisdom by which the uncultivated people of foreign countries were refreshed. And when from both peoples the Lord chose those whom he would bring by his teaching into the unity of his body, which is the Church, they were undoubtedly being fed upon locusts and wild honey, because he turned many into his members, both from the one people, who sought heavenly things with a wavering intention, and from the other nation, who knew only the taste of earthly philosophy.”
Next, we are told that St. John did not feel worthy to unloose our Lord’s shoe. St. Bede once again provides a very good explanation of the seemingly odd choice of words. He reminds us of the Jewish tradition of a brother being responsible for marrying a deceased brother’s wife if she had not yet borne a child. The next brother in line was only allowed to forgo this by the ritual of taking off a shoe and handing it to another that would take the widow as wife. So, St. John was indicating that he was not the Messiah and bridegroom by stating that to do so would be to take off the shoe of Christ who was the rightful next of kin to marry the bride. Our Lord being the second Adam rightfully has wedded the Church to Himself to pick up were Adam failed and He has brought forth spiritual children by her, the saints who live in Communion with the Holy Trinity.
And so, although St. John’s baptism was only in water and our Lord baptizes with the Holy Ghost, it was still needful that he prepare for the outpouring of God’s grace with human effort. The Sacraments of the Church work similarly; we offer to God our human effort and physical forms, in bread, wine, oil, and water, and God only then pours out the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord was teaching us the synergy needed for our salvation.
May we come to Christ’s Church and lower ourselves from our prideful way of life and be leveled. And repenting and confessing our prideful sins, may we bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, so that we may be granted access back to the Tree of Life only offered to those lowly of spirit, and be made communicants of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be the Glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.