One day an angel appeared to Zachary and announced that he was to have a son named John, who would prepare Israel for the messiah. Zachary doubted that Elizabeth, his aged wife, could bear a child.
He asked for a sign, and the angel obliged. Zachary was struck dumb until John’s birth. When the baby was born, the old man cuddled him and celebrated with this prophetic song:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited his people, he has set them free; and he has established for us a saving power in the House of his servant David, just as he proclaimed, by the mouth of the holy prophets from ancient times, that he would save us from our enemies and from the hands of all those who hate us, and show faithful love to our ancestors, and so keep in mind his holy covenant. This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, that he would grant us, free from fear, to be delivered from the hands of our enemies, to serve him in holiness and uprightness in his presence, all our days. And you, little child, you shall be called Prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare a way for him, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the faithful love of our God in which the rising Sun has come from on high to visit us to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow dark as death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. —Luke 1:68–79 NJB
St. John began his ministry thirty years later. He called people to repent and baptized them in water as a sign of purification. Jesus himself approached John for baptism “Behold the lamb of God,” John declared to the crowds, “who takes away the sin of the world.” He resisted baptizing Jesus, but acquiesced when Jesus explained that he wanted to set an example of righteous behavior.
Herod, the ruler of Galilee, arrested John because he feared the Baptist might foment a rebellion. John had also embittered Herod by condemning his marriage to Herodias, his half-brother’s wife. While in prison, John was bothered with doubt about Jesus. He had expected the messiah to come more forcefully with a “winnowing fan in his hand to clear the threshing floor.” Thus, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the messiah.
Jesus responded that he fulfilled all the messianic signs, healing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and lepers, raising the dead, and preaching good news to the poor. Then Jesus praised John to the crowds as “more than a prophet” and as the greatest man who ever lived. One evening Herod threw a party for Galilee’s upper crust. Herodias’s daughter entertained, dancing so beautifully that Herod offered to reward her with anything she desired. Her mother told her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod kept his promise. Without even a pretense of a trial, he gave the order and a soldier beheaded John at the prison.