Silence of the Desert
In desert lands birds are scarce, creatures bound to the land seldom appear, and people are rare. The desert stretches out and into the void the mind drifts, with the desert holding the silence. For those who have lived in the desert, and I have, the sameness and emptiness can be overwhelming. After viewing the surroundings, which does not take too long, the man returns to settle into the lifeless habitation.
Along the way, Nazarites would encounter the occasional village, help in the labor, or converse on scripture, but at some point, their times of retreat would take them over. Some sought visions, others sought wisdom and the will of God. Still, others sought the Profound Peace. It is unlikely any left the desert unaffected, and it is only the one who seeks who embraces the solitude. Such would be the course for John.
During his sojourn, John would ponder scriptures and wisdom teachings shared by the priests in En-Gedi and Qumran, but his anointing would come from a different source. Directly from God Himself? By the hands of the Elect? Was it transferred through the Archangel Gabriel? We may never capture the vision John received, or how it came, but by the dark of desert night, or during the blaze of day, the vision became enhanced as John neared his time of preachment.
Of course, there is a second possibility. Remember that John was consecrated as a Nazarite from birth. Even as a child his training would have begun. It might be difficult to determine exactly what this training would entail, but as he grew in age John was to become a soul of special interest. Zacharias, John’s father, had given a well-known prophecy concerning John, with the term, “raising up a horn of salvation,” being the keynote. A second reason of great importance, and often overlooked, is Luke 1.15, spoken by the angel of visitation* to Zacharias, “and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” In other words, John was awake in the manner we seek wakefulness, from his birth. Considering these prophecies, Essene priests would give John special attention. Perhaps it was they who perceived the truth about John, spurred on by Zacharias’ prophecy, and who confirmed John’s place within Judaism.
The “horn of salvation” might be assumed as John himself, but Luke 1.76 reins this thought into line, “for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,” this is relative to the coming Messiah. Luke 1.17, “And he shall go before him (Messiah) in the power and spirit of Elias (Elijah).” As we see in scripture, John understands that it is not he, but the “raising up” points to some other, Jesus. Luke 3.1-2, tells us that John’s calling came when Caiaphas (successor to Aaronic priesthood) was the high priest and Annas (successor to Moses) was the head of the Sanhedrin.
John’s identity is somewhat designated when he states, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord,” in answer to the mysterious question, ‘Art thou the teacher, the prophet, or Elijah’. From, Jn. 1.25, “Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ (Messiah=Anointed One), nor Elias (=Elijah, also, one who shows the way), neither that prophet?”
And they asked him, and said unto him
They put a question, by saying to him, why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias,
neither that prophet?
“since he denied that he was the Messiah, or Elias that was to come before the Messiah, according to the expectation of the Jews, or that prophet, or a prophet, they demand by what authority he introduced a new rite and ordinance among them, which they had never been used to; for though there were divers washings or baptisms among them, enjoined by the law of Moses in certain cases, and others which obtained by tradition, as the immersion of themselves after they had been at market, and of cups, pots, brazen vessels, and tables, yet nothing of this kind that John administered: and as for the baptism of proselytes, it seems to be of a later date than this, and had no manner of likeness to it. The ordinance John administered was such, as they apprehended that no one ought to practise, unless he was the Messiah, or his forerunner, or some eminent prophet; they insist upon it therefore, that since he denied he was either of these, that he would show his credentials, and what commission he had from God to baptize; or they suggest he was liable to be called to an account by their Sanhedrin, and be condemned as a false prophet, or an innovator in religious affairs.”*
John was not known to the wider public before he began his ministry. As mentioned before, his sojourns amongst the people would have been more limited. Being an unknown factor, the questioning by the Pharisees would require a straightforward answer. However, the answers they seek cannot be straightforwardly given, for that answer would have to be in context to the rigor of their current understanding, of which both John and then Jesus were not. Although they could condone the forerunner, who was expected, they could not fashion the wisdom nor the preaching message of John within themselves. They would not encompass John, much less Jesus.
“He was more industrious to do good than to appear great; and therefore waved anything of himself till he was legally interrogated.” Further on, “The Jews expected the person of Elias to return from heaven, and to live among them, and promised themselves great things from it.”* John faced a similar problem as Jesus, as both were not known to the Pharisees nor the Sadducees; both may be then brought on charges as being false prophets or those who are ‘innovating’, meaning not in the strictness of the law (performance) as well as strict legal interpretation as it was currently understood.
The comment, “great things from it,” is important. For the Pharisees expected to be praised for keeping the letter of the law, holding the fort for the populous, if you will, and thereby designated themselves as the most holy, or even perfectly holy, as in perfectly keeping the law. “He was the Elias [Elijah] that God had promised, not the Elias they had foolishly dreamed of.”
*From Matthew Henry’s commentary, John 1.19-28.
What was this message, and what was the interpretation of scripture left unattended?
“According to alchemists themselves—and this is the key to the Grail mystery—the vessel could at times be identical to its contents, implying a unitive or monistic level of reality above or beyond the dualistic mode of ordinary perception.
“Recall the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 89): “Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not realize that he who made the inside is the same one who made the outside?” Alchemists understood this mystical passage; they were aware… that the experimenter is an integral part of the experiment… Yet the words of Jesus as recorded by Thomas indicate that revelatory insights about non-dual reality are not the exclusive Provence of cutting-edge scientists or even anachronistic alchemists—on the contrary, they are available to everyone. Such fortunate experiences are usually associated with meditation, contemplation, and prayer… for example, in a fleeting instant when we succeed momentarily in suspending our beliefs about the world and about what is possible. Quite suddenly, the arbitrary distinction of “self and “other” vanishes… inside and outside are revealed to be one and the same.”
*Mark H. Gaffney, Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes. Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2004, p. 153.
This extended quote directs us to Jesus pointing out the failure of Pharisaic legalism, which of nature is divisive, yielding either obedience or disobedience, guilt or innocence, but within the middle removes measures of compassion and emphasizes iota, not wholeness, following the law but offering no true pathway unto God. Matt. 23.25: “Woe to you scribes [probably Essene scribes] and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, that the outside of them may be clean, but within they are full of extortion and excess. (26) Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and the platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. (27) …for ye are like unto whited sepulchers*, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. (28) Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are filled with hypocrisy and inequity.”
*Whited sepulchers:” higher ranking Essene scribes and priests wore white, leading to “…(29) because ye build the tombs of the prophets; … (30) we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets; … (31) Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.”
What does this tell us about John? Like Jesus, John denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees and directed a new unity around a baptism symbolizing purification (water baptism), beginning with the confession of sin and the concomitant recognition of sin nature. Although John may have held to strict legal obedience, as those of Qumran espoused, he recognized also that the law had to be catapulted, arisen if you will, onto a higher moral plane, one that would signify a new beginning relative to the legal foundation, yet to be completed by the coming Messiah.
The cleansing and purification of the soul, the rinsing day by day, and waiting for the coming of age, there can be little doubt that John’s isolation in the desert led to a new vision and a new era for Judaism. Every sign is apparent, for his is a revelatory message, not a legalistic one. He does not unroll a scroll to be read in the synagogue, he is the scroll, written on his heart and accompanied by the Vision, revelation alive, giving life instead of rules, offering hope instead of repetition and subjugation.
From The Exhortation, Damascus Document, DSS: “God loves knowledge. Wisdom and understanding He has set before Him, and prudence and knowledge serve Him. Patience and much forgiveness are with Him towards those who turn from transgression; but power, might, and great flaming wrath by the hand of all the Angels of Destruction towards those who depart from the way and abhor the Precept. They shall have no remnant or survivor.”*
*Translated by Geza Verses, (section II) The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English.
The calling out of the mystic beckons as we read the above passages. In most cases, today’s Christian looks without when he prays, but Jesus tells us God’s kingdom is within.* The spirit within, the light that animates the soul, lies within us. Certainly, John would know of this secret but during his spiritual growth would have to temper his soul to it. Even within the context of his upbringing, John is still a man, brought to purpose, fulfilling his mission, with the success of his mission bringing him to an early death.
*Lk. 17.21, “the kingdom of God is within you.”