The warm-up act for Lent
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
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?"
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
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
This is an edited extract from Approaching Easter
by Jane Williams (Lion, 9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 0-7459-5199-6).