On the Life and Death of a Character (in all senses of the word)

Onorio_Marinari_-_Salome_with_the_Head_of_the_Baptist_-_WGA14085

John the Baptist is one of my favorite characters in the Bible. I use the word “character” with all its implied meanings, as I believe John the Baptist was, indeed, “a character” as we often say about people, especially Southerners it seems. I am confident that people have also occasionally described me as “a character,” bless my heart.

Truthfully, John the Baptist was probably a little wild for my personal taste and comfort: he lived in the desert, wore tattered clothing about which he probably cared little, ate wild locusts and honey, preached at the top of his lungs, and perhaps scared many, living “off the grid” for sure.

However, he was the cousin whom Jesus sought out for his own baptism, and John the Baptist knew that he was baptizing the Son of God. That’s good enough for me.

The beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod in this Sunday’s gospel reading is not one of the beloved John the Baptist stories for sure, but maybe the actual beheading is not the point. Even though John the Baptist had been beheaded, some were saying that he had “been raised from the dead,” and Herod was confused. Indeed, we all have “been raised from the dead” in the Risen Christ, something that Herod did not quite understand.

Texts quoting John the Baptist or extolling him as one of the great saints abound in hymn and anthem literature. My personal favorite is the Orlando Gibbons setting of “This is the record of John,” commonly used in Advent, but there are also many worthy contemporary settings of this text. Other texts relating to John the Baptist that we frequently sing are “On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry,” “Comfort, comfort, ye my people,” “Prepare the way, O Zion,” all hymns found in the Advent section of The Hymnal 1982.

The Sequence Hymn this Sunday (July 12) is a text that may also be applied to John the Baptist’s message, with exclamations such as “thy kingdom come,” “watches of the night,” “proclaim the day is near,” and “the day of perfect righteousness, the promised day of God.” The tune St. Flavian is found in our hymnal three separate times and is known widely among Protestant faith traditions. The melody was originally a 16th-century Psalm tune, which is exhibited by its strong, unwavering rhythm.

A few recordings of “This is the record of John”…

The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford:

King’s College Choir, Cambridge:

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