St John the Baptist used to be a towering figure in the Christian consciousness. Almost any mediaeval church dedicated to St John can be sure to be dedicated to the Baptist. Every day at Lauds the faithful intone the canticle in which St Zechariah  prophesied the mission of his son. His feasts were among the most important of the entire liturgical year. With the feasts of the Annunciation and the Nativity, that of St John’s Birth and conception (commemorated in the new Martyrologium Romanum by the feast of Zechariah and Elizabeth on 23rd September) mark out the seasons of the year. I have been assured, though I lack the learning to verify it for myself, that the brief remark in Luke 1:5 about the “course of Abia” allows a convincing reconstruction of the Temple cycle whereby these feast would fall on the correct historical dates.

 Our Lord tells us in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28 “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” and St John the Divine tells us in John 1:7 “this man came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him” and then in verse 15 reports the Baptist’s words “He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me”. The following comment “and of his fullness we all have received: and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses: grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” seems almost a commentary on the Baptist’s words. The Baptist comes from God and yet Christ Who comes after him is before him because He was before him. Likewise the law and grace & truth both come from His Fullness but the later are the greater. Perhaps this makes sense of the daily recitation of the Benedictus and of the startling claim that John came “that all men might believe through him”. In some sense, just as Mary embodies Grace and Truth, John embodies the law. The Magnificat is sung after the Benedictus every day even though in the Gospel it comes before. The Law comes first but only with Grace and Truth may it be fulfilled. It must come first none the less because it was given that grace might be sought.

John seems to embody all that came before to bear witness to He who was before, to embody the Law and the Prophets: Moses and Elijah. He who was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and cleansed of original sin by the approach of the saviour embodies both the life of eremitical asceticism and of preparatory evangelisation. He embodies the prophetic charism – what we can do with the help of grace to prepare for grace in others – and the convicting witness of the law written on the heart  making straight the path of the Lord.

The Fathers, St Thomas teaches us, knew about the Trinity. But they did not preach the Trinity. John has the Spirit from his mother’s womb but it is his observance of the law, his demand that others do likewise, that they bear fruits worthy of penance, that makes straight the path of the Lord. We are familiar, too familiar, nowadays with the transformation of our Blessed Mother into an abstraction – a ‘Marian Principle’. So long as this does not become an excuse for a genuine approach to her gracious person there is great value in the thought that Our Lady is the type and model of the one fold of the Redeemer. There is a Johannine principle as well and we would do well not to forget it.