The Priesthood of St. John the Baptist

In the Infancy Narrative of St. Luke, we learn about the father of St. John the Baptist:

In the days of King Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly class of Abijah; his wife was a descendent of Aaron named Elizabeth. (Lk 1:5)

Most Christians are aware of how this story goes: the archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah as he was carrying out his priestly duties in the Temple; the angel told Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, whose name was to be John and who, in the spirit of Elijah, will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.

I would like to focus on the priesthood of Zechariah, because it implies something fascinating. First, we note that Luke tells us that Zechariah was of the priestly class of Abijah. The priestly classes are explained in 1 Chron 24; but first let's review the Hebrew priesthood in general. Recall that Moses had a brother, Aaron, who spoke for Moses, as Moses stuttered (Ex 4:10-17). Among the Levitical priests, the sacrificial priesthood fell to Aaron and his descendents (Ex 40:15); it was to these descendents of Aaron that the responsibility of the animal sacrifices fell. Leviticus 1 through 7 explains the laws concerning these animal sacrifices. Bulls, goats and lambs were the animals sacrificed, but there were five different types of offerings. One of these, called the Peace Offering, offered up (among possible animals) a lamb; the purpose of the Peace Offering was for thanksgiving (Greek: eucharistia).

Now, let’s return to the priestly classes of 1 Chr 24. Here we learn that among Aaron’s sons was one Eleazar and that at the time of King David, the many descendents of Eleazar were divided into many classes based on decendency – each class took turns serving at the altar. The class derived from Abijah was the eighth class in the list of classes. Zechariah belonged to this class.

If Zechariah was a priest of the house of Aaron of the priestly class of Abijah, then so was his son, John. Elizabeth is also mentioned to be a descendent of Aaron, so there can be no question that John belonged to the Aaronic priesthood. He was authorized by the Law to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Yet, it would seem he never did so. What, then, is the point of telling us about John’s priestly pedigree? Did St. John the Baptist do something pertaining to the priesthood?

I believe the purpose is to show that St. John the Baptist was a type of the New Testament priesthood – a sacerdotal priest. First, we hear from St. Bede, referring to John’s belonging to the eighth of the priestly classes:

But it was not without meaning that the first preacher of the new covenant was born with the rights of the eighth lot; because as the old Covenant is often expressed by the seventh number on account of the Sabbath, so frequently is the new Covenant by the eighth, because of the sacrament of our Lord’s or our resurrection. (quoted in the “Catena Aurea,” St. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Parker, London, 1842, vol III-1, p10)

That is, Jesus rose on the eighth day (see also this essay); therefore, it is meaningful that St. John was of the eighth priestly class. Next, let's note that the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary included elements of all five Levitical sacrifices, but it is the Peace Offering (Eucharistia) that most closely resembles our re-presentation of Calvary on our altars today. This peace offering was a sacrifice of a lamb, which was partially eaten together with unleavened bread. And we all know that St. John called Jesus the Lamb of God when He approached for baptism:

Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! (Jn 1:29)

Then St. John baptized Jesus. What does this mean – to baptize? While sprinkling with water is a common baptismal practice today, it is an image of submersion into the water and emergence out of the water. Into the water represents death and burial; out of the water represents resurrection. Matthew seems to allude to this in his gospel, when he says, “After Jesus was baptized, he came directly out of the water.” (Mt 3:16) So, John, in baptizing Jesus, represented Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is exactly what a Catholic priest does in the Mass. This is what the Aaronic priest of the Temple – John – did as he fulfilled his mysterious transitional role; he was both Old Testament priest, symbolically slaying the sacrificial lamb of the Peace offering, and New Testament priest at the same time, as he baptized/offered Jesus, the cosmic Lamb.

What happened next? A Trinitarian epiphany. The Holy Spirit descended as a dove – the symbol of peace; this makes sense as John was offering the ultimate Peace Offering of his Levitical priesthood. This same Holy Spirit descends upon our altars during Mass today; He is called upon by the priest (during the Epiclesis prayer) to come upon the gifts. Next, after Jesus’ baptism, the Father speaks His Word, telling all to listen to His Son. This phrase has many meanings, including the fact that by speaking His Word, the Word made flesh is generated. We may also understand it to mean that we should listen to the Word of God, which is an integral part of every Eucharistic Sacrifice.

In John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ baptism, the first disciples are called. Perhaps it is more correct to say that St. John the Baptist sent them to Jesus. This is also a part of our Mass, for the priest not only offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice as did St. John, but he also gives Jesus to us in Holy Communion, as St. John did to those first disciples.

The baptism of Jesus was, then, a type of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Mass, with St. John the Baptist as priest. Many images are brilliantly brought together to typify both the Sacrifice on Calvary as well as the Mass through the ages: baptism, Eucharist, the Most Holy Trinity, Jesus the sacrificial victim, the priesthood, our reception in Holy Communion, continuity with the Old Testament, etc.

This is all very interesting, but how does this help us grow closer to God? At first, it reinforces our Faith, showing us that what we believe has a strong Scriptural basis. Perhaps more important, though, is to develop an appreciation for the beautiful design God put into Salvation History. God wants to give us beautiful things, as we want to do for our own beloveds. Little jewels like this understanding of the Baptist’s priesthood is just that: a jewel, a beautiful gift for us, His beloved.