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Faith >

The warm-up act for Lent

Jane Williams reflects on John the Baptist

We usually think of Lent in negative terms. If we keep it at all, we keep it by "giving things up". I’ve already made that assumption in what I’ve just said. The most usual things to give up are the things that we know in our heart of hearts are bad for us, so that Lent becomes a means of killing two birds with one stone. We have the satisfaction of improving our health and feeling pious. What could be better?

But, interestingly, that is not how Lent starts. As we discover in the Bible, Jesus went into the wilderness not to give something up, but to discover the meaning of something he had just been given. What we celebrate as Lent is the start of Jesus’s ministry. Immediately before he goes into the desert, Jesus is baptised in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

John is a very Lenten figure. He wears animal skins, and is reputed to have a strict organic diet. He lives, we are told, on locusts and honey, so I think we can safely assume that he was not on the plump side. He preaches hellfire and damnation, and is not afraid to tell the rich and the religious exactly what he thinks of them. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees — senior religious leaders — "vipers", and says: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matthew 3.7).

People just love John and his style of preaching, and they go out to the river in their droves to hear him preach, and to repent and try to change their ways. They go very much in the spirit in which we now approach Lent. They slightly doubt whether their attempt is going to last long, but they are willing to try. No doubt some of John’s followers made a lifelong commitment, but for many people he was just the latest religious craze.

Jesus, the younger man, the up-and-coming guru who is very likely to be the next craze, goes along to the River Jordan, too. The Gospel stories don’t tell us why, but we can imagine that it is partly out of a desire to show respect to John, and to give credit to what John has been doing. Jesus has no wish to set up in rivalry with John, and he wants everyone to see that.

The Christmas story tells us that John and Jesus have already met, though not exactly face to face. Their pregnant mothers supported each other, and John, growing in his mother’s womb, recognised Jesus as divine and danced for joy.

We have no idea whether they met between that moment and this turning point at the river, when both are adults, but John recognises Jesus, not as someone he’s met many times before, but more like someone he has seen in his dreams. John instantly realises that his own ministry is over, and that it is time to hand over to Jesus. He says: "I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?" (Matthew 3.14).

If this is a hard realisation, he gives no indication of it in his gracious words of welcome and acclamation for Jesus. But, considering that the riverbank is crowded with people who have come out from all the local towns and villages specifically to see John, not Jesus, I think it says a great deal about John.

He is still at the height of his powers, but he instantly concedes to Jesus. He has always known that his work is not about himself, and that he was only supposed to be the warm-up act. He has always described himself as just the herald, announcing the coming of the really important person. But I wonder how many of us would have been able to keep focused on that, with the kind of popular acclaim John was receiving? Was he really never tempted to wonder whether perhaps he was to be the real thing after all, and not just the forerunner?

This is an edited extract from Approaching Easter by Jane Williams (Lion, 9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 0-7459-5199-6).

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