The Life of Christ

Mgr. E. Le Camus





WHEN he emerged from the desert, John set out for the Jordan banks where the river empties into the Dead Sea. As the Scripture phrase has it, "the Word of God was upon him," and he began to preach repentance and the baptismal rite which was its symbol.

Repentance is not a mere looking forward to the future with a resolution to do better, a determination to look at sin in a new light, as the word metauoia1 would seem to indicate. The moral act of penance, in order to be complete, ought to include both regret for having done evil and the intention of making atonement in sorrow and pain for that which in a certain sense appears to us to be irreparable. And so it was that John insisted on fruits worthy of penance.

The popular emotion stirred up by this solemn invitation was so profound that the chief men of the nation were themselves borne away in the movement. It is not a rare thing to find in the history of peoples times of salutary contagion when the most recalcitrant are forced to follow in the general wake and publicly to render to God the glory He deserves.

Pharisees and publicans, learned and unlearned, rich and poor together were seized upon, accused, overwhelmed by grace. Many publicly confessed their crimes.

There was nothing novel in this public confession. Ordinarily the Israelite was under this obligation before offering in the Temple the expiatory victim, whenever his secret faults would not draw down upon him the penalty of death.2 Israelitic theology went so far as to claim that to obtain pardon for one's sins, a generous avowal of them was necessary. Maimonides3 says, "he who, through ignorance or presumption, has transgressed the positive or negative precepts of the law, if he desire to be freed from his sins and to do penance, must begin by confessing them. It is vain for him to offer a victim for the extinction of his wickedness, everything is futile for him without regular and oral confession. Moreover, the criminal who would have merited death or a whipping could not wash away his crime by his submission to punishment, if he should not join to it confession, the true sign of repentance. That is why the high priest makes a confession of the sins of the people over the head of the scapegoat charged with the expiation of all the iniquities of Israel." Such an appreciation of confession is but natural, and we meet with it again even in the writings of the pagan philosophers.4 It is reasonable to expect to see the culprit who by his repentance has interiorly rejected his sin, advance a step further in the way of justice and confess it exteriorly. At first it is grief for the hurt received; then, the opening of the wound to extract therefrom all bad elements and to cure it.

John administered baptism as a sign of the remission of sin. The idea was not absolutely new. Long before, God, by the mouth of the prophets,5 had decreed exterior ablution as a symbol of spiritual purification. But the new Elias was not content with these partial lustrations, customary under the law of Moses; he exacted a general immersion of the body as a sign of the radical cleansing of the soul. In this sense his baptism was an innovation, and he demanded of his followers sentiments of humility rare and difficult for a people all preoccupied with their religious prerogatives and deceived by the maxims of blind and senselessly presumptuous Pharisaism. To inform and to convince a Israelite that he was deeply in sin, although a circumcised son of Abraham, was directly to attack his firmest convictions and to destroy his dearest hopes. "Ye offspring of vipers," exclaimed John, "who hath shown you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits worthy of penance and do not begin to say, we have Abraham for our father! For I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire." In his holy indignation, John borrows his figures from whatever lies at hand. He sees nothing more hideous than the viper in the desert concealed beneath the grass, ready to cast his venom among the flowers and verdure; to it he compares the hypocrites who come, without repentance, to ask for baptism, its symbol. Nothing is more inanimate than the pebble of the stream or the rocks of the mountain; and yet were paganism as lifeless as this inert nature, the breath of God could raise up out of it children of Abraham and create a new people. Such teaching tended visibly to prepare a way for the Gospel. The national point of view gave way before the moral, which is the only religious point of view. In fact it seemed to the Precursor that natural descent from the father of the faithful is by no means essential for entrance into the kingdom of the Messiah: spiritual descent alone is required; and this is within the reach of all upright souls, even though they come from among the Gentiles. God is coming to acknowledge His own. Woe to the false children of Abraham! They shall not escape the severity of the judgment of the Messiah, and the ax will be buried pitilessly in the roots of every tree that does not bring forth good fruit.

As might have been foreseen, this new theory could not but scandalise the Pharisees, who considered themselves born
members and indispensable citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Many withdrew in anger and severed all connection with the Baptist.6 Others, as if chained by his words of fire that overwhelmed them, tremblingly asked of him, "What then shall we do?" John replied: "He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner." The great law of charity in its daily application was to be the best preparation for the kingdom of the Messiah, which was announced as the very kingdom of charity. He who is good is not far from God. Light comes speedily into the heart where mercy reigns.

The publicans or taxgatherers came in their turn to seek baptism and asked: "Master, what shall we do?" John replied: "Do nothing more than that which is appointed you."

The public functionary must not sacrifice the rights of the state in order to prove his charity; his virtue consists in not exaggerating these rights, in not abusing the authority he has received, and especially in not creating for himself any rights personal, imaginary, or dictated by cupidity and injustice.

The soldiers, probably Jews in the pay of Herod Antipas, or men of the national police, also questioned him: "And what shall we do?" He replied to them: "Do violence to no man, neither calumniate any man, and be content with your pay." For the soldier, the common danger of camp life at this epoch was the abuse, at times, of his strength in the despoiling of unarmed citizens; at other times, of his credit with his chiefs in the calumniation of the innocent. Consciousness of duty performed, and pay for his sustenance must suffice for the soldier. This is the outline of the moral teaching of John. As the Hebrews of old, when they came up out of Egypt, were ready to receive the law of God, and to enter into the promised land, having washed away the last traces of their impurities in the waters of the Red Sea through which they had passed, so now the multitudes passed beneath the hands of John, eager to prepare themselves by adequate purification for the coming of the Messiah.

To the Israelites no event could be of greater importance than the coming of the Messiah; hence the announcement that it was near at hand set in vibration the strongest chord in every heart, roused again their most cherished hopes, and gave birth to the most ardent desires. From the Messiah they expected not only all that prophetic inspiration since the time David had so magnificently promised, but even that which patriotism and the thoroughly human aspirations of worldly souls had superadded. The descendant of Jesse, the glorious monarch of the golden age, was, indeed, to effect the spiritual purification of his people, and at the same time, in the popular expectation, to break the oppressor's yoke, to exterminate the vanquished with most frightful tortures, and to establish on the ruins of the universe the supremacy of Israel. In this triumph the people of God were to find, together with the most complete temporal felicity, an entire satisfaction of all their longings.7 Henceforth, every one wished to belong to this privileged people, and as the definitive enrollment was begun, it was time for each to come and take his place.

Amid this general excitement the authority of the Baptist grew each day. They wondered if he were not himself the Christ. Faithful to his mission, the Precursor laboured to direct every soul toward Him Who was to come, and for Whom he was preparing the way. "I, indeed," he said, "baptise you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose, He shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost and with fire."

This then is the difference between the work of the Precursor and that of the Messiah. John's mission, as the humble servant of Him Whom he announces, is to sow penance in all hearts and to cultivate souls by inviting them to sincere repentance. It is for the Messiah then to seize upon them by the communication of the Divine Spirit, and to consume in them by the fire of charity all that was left of coarse grain and unsuited to the kingdom of God. The one prepares sanctification, the other confers it. The former collects the sheep, the latter encloses them in the fold. "Make way for the MessiahKing," cries the herald; "let every valley be filled up and every height laid low." And when the pride of some shall have disappeared, when the indifference or the impiety of others shall have been overcome, when the vices of all shall have been corrected, the lookedfor Prince shall make His solemn entrance among His people, and all flesh shall look upon the Salvation of God. "Whose fan is in His hand," said John, changing the figure, "and He will purge His floor; and He will gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire." It is always the Master Who comes to His lands to visit His people and to inspect the harvest. But, in the Israelitic theocracy, the Master could be God alone. The Messiah then will be Godwithus, according to the preaching of the Baptist. Thus had the prophet Isaias8 foretold it: "Get thee up on a high mountain thou that bringeth good tidings to Sion; lift up thy voice with strength . . . say to the cities of Juda: Behold your God!"

It was on the left bank of the Jordan at the place called Bethany, or, in the opinion of some, Bethabara, that the Baptist9 preached to the multitudes. The caravans that passed by bore the great tidings afar. The rumour quickly spread throughout all the Jewish world, and there gathered an everincreasing and almost tumultuous concourse of people.

Listening to the new prophet, each one felt himself forced to believe in a near fulfillment of his promises. Did not everything in the bed of this sacred river speak to them of God's merciful relations with His people? There the Hebrews entering into the promised land had crossed dryshod; the twelve stones, still standing, commemorated the visible protection of Jehovah and the first step toward the glorification of Israel. Between these waters miraculously held back had gone Elias and Eliseus.10 Not far from the sacred river Moses had died saluting from afar the promised land; Elias had ascended into Heaven borne away in a chariot of fire: was it not there where these two illustrious guides of the people of God came to the
end of their glorious career that the true Saviour of Israel should inaugurate His mission? There was every reason to believe so, and, hastening with enthusiasm to the banks of the Jordan, the nation there awaited salvation.


1 Etymologically this word signifies the very act of repentance; but it is usually employed to signify penance, as we understand it, in sackcloth and ashes (cf. St. Matt. xi and St. Luke x). Besides, these two Evangelists have no other terms in which to express the penance of the Ninevites. which certainly was not merely a simple resolution to do better in the future. (St. Matt. xii; St. Luke xi.)

2 Levit. v, 5; Numbers v. 7.

3 Tesubhah, ch. 1.

4 "Vitia sua confiteri," says Seneca (Ep. 53), "sanitatis indicium est." Socrates develops the same theory in the Gorgias, ch. xxvi.

5 Ezech. xxxvi, 25; Isa. i, 16; Jer. ii, 22.

6 St. Luke vii, 30; Matt. xxi, 25

7 Berthold Christol., p. 26 et seq.

8 Isa. xl, 9.

9 Which is the correct reading? It is difficult to say. Origen in Joan., hom. lxi, acknowledges that, in his time, it was Bethany in nearly all the menu scripts: scedon en pasi tois antigrafois, and even in the Gnostic Heracleon, who lived about the year 170. This does not prevent him, probably because he had seen it somewhere in reality it is found in the Syriac version published by Cureton and in the one quite recently discovered on Sinai by Mrs. Lewis from adopting the reading Bethabara. He gives several reasons for this, of which the most important is that on the banks of the Jordan there is no place called Bethany, while there is a spot pointed out as the place where John baptised, and which is called Bethabara or Bethara, or, again, Betharba. This uncertainty as to the orthography even of the name, which is found in the most ancient manuscripts of the works of the great exegete, is somewhat surprising. In reality, we find mentioned in the Old Testament Bethabara and Betharaba. The first of these localities has been discovered by Conder, one hour's distance northeast of Beisan. This is the spot where Gedeon (Judges vii, 24) ordered the Ephraimites to cut off the passage of the Madianite pillagers. The ford of Abara was, in fact, the one that was to be reached by those who fled through the valley of Jesrael. But is it probable that the Baptist began his ministry so far from Jerusalem? The desert where his voice cried out is not there, and we must seek elsewhere, nearer to Jericho, for the locality indicated by the tradition of which Origen speaks. The Book of Josue (xv, 6, 61, xviii, 22), in fact, mentions Betharaba, probably north of and near to Bethhagla. Here there is still a ford very frequently used, and the ruins excavated and restored at QasrelYaoud corresponding surely to the Church of St. John the Baptist, raised upon arches by the Emperor Anastasius, it seems beyond doubt that the grottoes inhabited by Greek monks in the ravine of Ain Kharrar, mark the place where, at a very early date, the Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333), St. Paula, and other pious travelers venerated the memory of the baptism of Jesus Christ. The very name of Betharaba seems to be preserved in that of KirbtArabeh given to some neighboring ruins. This spot is about four miles north of the Dead Sea. It is the nearest ford to Jerusalem, and we have seen several caravans cross there.

The reading Bethabara, adopted by Eusebius and St. Jerome, which, however, has not been maintained in the Vulgate, was declared the best by St. Epiphanius, St. John Chrysostom, Euthymius, Theophylact, etc.; but can all this outweigh the authority of the primitive manuscripts giving the name Bethany? These Fathers of the Church did not discuss the question, but confidently adopted Origen's opinion. It is evident therefore, that at bottom the question lies between the authority of the Alexandrian Doctor and that of manuscripts more ancient than he. Hence it is not surprising that a large number of exegetes prefer to read Bethany. See the excellent discussion by P. Lagrange, Revue Biblique (1895), p. 502 et seq.

There may have been, in fact, several Bethanys, as there were several Bethlehems, Bethsaidas, etc. If the name signified not only the Place of the Poor, but also the Ferry or the Place of the Ford, it would naturally be applied to a locality on the banks of the Jordan. In the Roman wars Bethany may have disappeared. Moreover, since Bethany and Bethabara have almost the same etymology, may they not have been employed indiscriminately to designate the place where travelers crossed? This solution of the difficulty is as simple as it is satisfactory.

10 IV Kings ii, 8.

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