Shortly before Christ began teaching in public, St John received God’s call while living in the desert. After this, he began to preach in the country near the River Jordan. St John told the people to repent of their sins, to be charitable, and to prepare for the coming of Christ. His mission is described in all four gospels.
Crowds flocked from Jerusalem and the provinces to hear this new prophet. To encourage the people to start a new life with God, St John baptised many of them in the River Jordan. The seriousness of his preaching and his style of dress (a camel-hair coat and a leather belt) reminded the crowds of the Prophet Elijah.
Some even wondered if St John was the promised Messiah, but he denied it, pointing instead to another who would arrive after him. His role, he said, was to prepare the people for Christ: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”, as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23; cf Isaiah 40:3)
Due to his practice of baptising people, St John became known as “John the Baptist” (Matthew 3:1). Thanks to his fiery preaching, St John grew very popular and gained many followers. Some of them, such as St Andrew, went on to follow Christ. After St John was later imprisoned, Christ told the crowds that the Baptist was a very special prophet (Matthew 11:7-15).
Pope Benedict XVI underlined this when he explained: “John the Baptist did not limit himself to teaching repentance or conversion. Instead, in recognizing Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who came to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29), he had the profound humility to hold up Jesus as the One sent by God, drawing back so that he might take the lead, and be heard and followed.”
He added: “The entire existence of the Forerunner of Jesus was nourished by his relationship with God, particularly the period he spent in desert regions (cf. Luke 1:80). The desert regions are places of temptation but also where man acquires a sense of his own poverty because once deprived of material support and security, he understands that the only steadfast reference point is God himself.”
In conclusion, the pope said: “John the Baptist, however, is not only a man of prayer, in permanent contact with God, but also a guide in this relationship. The Evangelist Luke, recalling the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the Our Father, notes that the request was formulated by the disciples in these words: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his own disciples” (cf. Luke 11:1).”
This distinctive mid-century window of St John the Baptist is found within Our Lady of the Angels, in Nuneaton. Designed by Joseph Edward Nuttgens in 1950 (and possibly produced by his assistant Gilbert Sheedy), it clearly presents St John as the forerunner of Christ. St John is pictured holding a lamb, to symbolise his important message that Christ was the “Lamb of God”.
The saint also holds a cross-shaped banner featuring the Latin phrase ‘Ecce Agnes* Dei’ (Behold the Lamb of God). Both the banner and the lamb are very common in artistic representations of St John the Baptist. As described in the gospels, he is also pictured in his trademark camel-hair coat.
*the correct spelling is actually ‘Agnus’.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
Our Lady of the Angels, Nuneaton
Read the relevant passage
On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: In the gospels, the mission of St John is compared to that of the Prophet Elijah.
- From the New Testament: Due to his public criticism of King Herod, St John was later imprisoned and then beheaded.