The Meaning of St John
His day came; Churches were adorned; and millions of ‘believers’ gathered round depictions of the man who was supposedly killed slightly over two thousand years ago.
The story of St John the Baptist is interesting. It has brief but significant encounters with Jesus Christ; it entails a mysterious form of missionary; and it is loaded with political intrigue, lust and seduction, and ultimately the murder of that shadowy figure.
But the meanings here go far beyond a simple story in first century Palestine.
One meaning, derived (but distinct) from Catholic Christianity, sees John as the first caller to the imminent change that was to come, the mission of Jesus Christ. In this meaning, John is a prophet preparing those who would listen for the holy presence that was to arrive. Here, John is the closest idea to that of Jesus. John is the positive presager of the divine blessing that Jesus symbolises. And so, indeed, in the theological paratenon of Catholicism, John takes a unique place, below the divine but above the mere followers (including Peter and Paul).
There is another view of John’s story. In it, John, though connected to Jesus, is a teacher in his own right, a teacher from whom Jesus absorbed, and whose learning had informed the message of Jesus. This view takes two directions.
One direction is historical. That is, apart from any belief system, both John and Jesus were preachers, some would say reformers, some would put them at the opposite end of social activism, but the point is that both belonged to the same stream: attempts at changing the Hebraic power structure of first century Palestine. And that John, by gaining more prominence (or notoriety) before Jesus, had primacy in the chronology of Judeo-Christian reform movements.
The other direction is more theological, certainly more interesting. It sees John’s independent teaching, independent missionary, as of tremendous importance that transcended his connection to Jesus. Here, John, in his own right, was an expression of the divine.
In this line of thinking, all humans contain in them the divine spark, that makes all of them sons of the divine. The word “son” here applies equally to both genders, for the phonetic leads not to gender, but to the “sun”: the primary source of energy – the universal power that seeps into humans and gives them life.
And yet, some sons (suns) shine more than others, especially at periods when humanity is supposed to make leaps in its knowledge (as was supposedly the case two thousand years ago, when John and Jesus walked in Palestine). And so, in this line of thinking, John was a special source of light, a special son/sun, a prophet of his own ultra-important mission.
But what kind of mission was John’s?
In this view, John personified a message for the elite. His was a mission of the elegance of the soul, its need to transcend the pulls of the base needs and wants, its ascension to merge with the refinement and purity of the divine, and ultimately, of the flowering that results from that merger.
In this line of thinking, this is not mere talking. It is a difficult path. It is the passing through a “narrow gate”, one that takes humans from the swamps of debasement to the paradises of sensing the divine spark in them and gradually to the illumination of their entire being.
Here the message is elitist and for the elite because that difficult path is indeed for a few, those who have the breadth of understanding, the depth of wisdom, the strength of character, and the will to pass through the narrow gate.
It follows that, in this view, John was indeed the logical predecessor to Jesus. This is because in this line of thinking one way of seeing the message of Jesus is that it was another divine expression of that flowering of the soul that comes about from the merger of the divine with the human. And so, in this view, John was indeed an expression that indicated the route, personified the potentiality of human ascension. So, whereas Jesus embodied the spirit of ascension, John was the eureka moment of knowing the bliss of that ascension. Or, Jesus embodied the rays of the sun, represented a manifestation of that bringer of life here on earth (and so, he was a sun/son on earth), while John was the recognition of the importance of the light of the rays; he embodied ‘seeing’ the light.
In this view, it is also logical that John gets murdered, as a result of political intrigue, the lust of an old man, and the anger of a young woman that was to seduce the old man by dancing naked for him – all for John’s head to be severed. The symbolism fits perfectly with this line of thinking. The point is that, base human desires kill humans’ ability to recognise the light. Be it because of uncontrolled anger, lust, or power – actually, because of all forms of losing self-control - humans debase themselves, bury the divine spark in them. They become blind and do not see. They sever John’s head.
In this line of thinking, the death that John suffered was a strong indication of how the message of Jesus Christ was to be understood and propagated. If the divine spark was buried amidst humans’ descent into debasement, it follows (in this line of thinking) that humans will not get the true nature of the mission of Jesus. And so, whereas a successful Johannite mission would have led to recognising what Jesus the son, the sun, meant; the failure to understand the mission of John presaged the colossal and disastrous misunderstanding of the mission and meaning of Jesus.
But, if we follow that line of thinking, what does it mean then that Jesus absorbed from John? That John’s message informed that of Jesus?
In this view, there is a circularity in the universe. Whereas John represents humans’ recognition of their divine nature and stirs them to begin the ascension towards their true potential, the divine expressions need humans to embark on that journey. Or put another way, John represented the preparation of the human mind to understand the true message that Jesus embodied. But that message of Jesus was not self-contained; it needed the preparation (the message of John). Without it, Jesus’s message could not be completed. And so, the flowering that was supposed to take place by humans realising the inner spark was not only to take place inside the human soul; it had its correspondence in the universe.
This is the old idea of the one belonging to the All, and the All is manifested in unlimited expressions in the many ones. It is also the old Egyptian idea of the sky (with its wisdom and life-giving power) and earth (with its intuition and ability to absorb that power and effect it into creation) needing each other for the harmonious universal existence to be - and to expand.