Being John the Baptist

What follows is an imprecise, and likely inaccurate, interpretation of the prologue to the gospel of Mark. It is a rough crack at the husk of Mark's text to see what sweet milk spills out. In digging at the roots of the language, I was more concerned with echoes, harmonies, and countermelodies than the central narrative. I attempted to gaze into the original Greek and allow a new vision to spring up from the etymologies. This is a meditation on the desert, on John the Baptist, the feral prophet, and on us, the domesticated great-great grandchildren of The Way.

The desert is cold tonight, this unloved place for the unloved. Those people, they stink of the city. I can only scrub them so much. They tell me their hard-luck stories—how they have been defaced, debased, dishonored. Sometimes their sorry souls leave draglines behind them in the dust. What did they come to this wilderness to see? Am I only a hollow reed to them, blowing a tune not my own? I know who I am, and who I am not. When I can't take it any more, I just walk away. Their voices eat at me like lice.

I needed to come here; brush out my little hip-hole at the bottom of the rock, settle in under stars. Alone, I am myself. The stars sprinkle their half-light. There is little moon. I like it best when there is no moon at all, and no small fires.

Those people call me "devourer of devourers" because of the little locust I eat. In truth, I am no devourer. I am only consumed.

I am sick of the offal of their lambs and their goats, the stench of their domesticated ways. I know that tomorrow, or the next day, I will go back to the river. And they will be there. And I will throw hard words at them, like rocks thrown to keep carrion birds off a corpse. Not out of respect for the corpse, mind you, but to keep them from becoming fascinated with death.

It is the Awful Breath that drags me where I do not want to go. Ever since the time I was in my mother's half-lit womb, it drags me. Like a fox kit by the scruff of the neck, it drags me. "Here," it commands, "practice saving them. Now here—practice renouncing them. Go here, John. Eat this terrible knowledge." Then, when I cannot look at the crowds another moment, I walk away. And the Awful Breath always lets me go. That's the horror of it. I can leave whenever I want—and I don't leave. Or, more truthfully, I always come back. We have been a long time alone together, this Breath and me. It is what I know. Is it who I am?

Every evening, after a day of steeping flesh and flesh in the river, I return to this rock. Sometimes at night I feel there is someone out there—watching me, hunting me. I am only a desert rat; he is the descending raptor. But I am not frightened. I know I am too small, too weak, to break the binding cords he has fashioned for himself. He has lashed shut his beak and wrapped his talons to prevent himself from eating me whole. I feel his eye on me.

Soon the mountains will uncover their shy pink smile for me. Rather than go to them like a lover, I will descend to the river again. I will breathe the awful stink of my people. I will say to them, "By me you are drowned in water, but there is one who pursues me—stronger and greater than me—who will flood you with the Awful Breath."

Even now I know he is coming closer. Even now I know what will happen to him. The Breath will drive him out straight into the unloved places. There he will be pierced by demons. He will be led like a burdened beast by strange creatures—half-men, half-animal—who will tend to him and love him. And, when the time comes for me to be given away, he will rise up. He will herald "Jehovah is salvation" and will show forth the God-forward foundations of power. Even as the stars wash away in dawn, I turn—exposing my belly to him. My death. My life. My God.

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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