Here’s a short story I wrote.
John the Baptist Died in Hope
a story by Ben White imagined from Luke 7:18-25 and Mark 6:14-29
Tonight there was a torch in the hall. So, as had become his custom, he lay his cheek against the cold stone floor of the cell to watch under the door. It was like his eyes needed the light that danced on the other side. Some nights there was no torch and he stayed in the dark. He slept and woke as if the two were the same.
There were no contours to the dim light of day. The grayness that penetrated this deep into this giant stone building came and went with no edge. He had carefully watched the smooth passage several times through his threshold crack, but as much as he tried, the growth and fade of day did not occur strongly enough to be conceived as action. The long interval did little more than remind him that he was still there in this prison.
What seemed like miles of stone above his head bore down on him. He was oppressed by the solidity of the structure over him. He longed for the desert sky, the swirls and shouts of all those starry friends, all together telling infinite stories. Their lights seemed loud in his eyes somehow. This torch was a whisper, but a welcome one. He would listen to what she danced to say. He pressed his forehead against the thick wood of the door and opened wide his left eye — enough to feel the draft of the hall on the sensitive wet skin inside his eyelid. Trying not to blink too much he watched every moment of the torch’s burning. The crack did not give him an angle to see her directly so it was her echo only that he watched. In his mind’s eye, he saw her gripped maybe by a bolt in the wall, but free to sway and shutter in her fireyness, fixed but moving, circumscribed but still not safe, she bounced off the stones of the wall and floor, cutting jagged shadows now toward him then away.
He could not figure out why the passage was lit only some nights and not all. Perhaps the servant boy was negligent most of the time? The presence of light seemed to mean nothing consistently. Nothing always happened in the light. A lit hall could yield a jingling tromp of soldiers, or not. A visitor or not. A new prisoner in the cell next to him, or not. The last neighbor had left days ago and despite his best efforts, he had not gotten him to answer, not even to his loudest whisper. He sang to him anyway, as he had sung to the stars and snakes in the desert those many nights alone.
He laughed now at how he used to curse the sun for being too hot at noon, or being too absent at midnight. When you live alone that long, you need someone with whom you can squabble. He loved to hate the sun, but now, he would do anything to feel the familiar sting of sweat in his eyes. Not enough water or food to sweat down here. He knew he wouldn’t last. He had begun to hope that Herod would kill him, but he wouldn’t admit that to himself.
As the light approached and retreated from his single eye, he remembered the big comings and goings of his life. There were the angels, of course. They came to his family when he was a baby, but went so long ago. He had no memory of them really, but for his parents’ stories. His father still had the writing tablet on which he had written, “His name is John.” In his father’s old age, it was the only story he told. God bless him. He was still alive, somehow, at least he had heard news not long before he had been put in this place that, yes, Zachariah of Bethzaith was among the living. His mother was gone, she had never really recovered from his own leaving, but Elizabeth lived a good many years after he left home.
He was her baby boy, her truest joy, the one God had given her. There was no bitterness in her grief, but he felt it nonetheless, stretching through the valleys and over the hills, to the roofless home God had called him to there by the Jordan. She knew he had to go; she did not protest. Her promise was true, but how could she let him go, the baby who leapt for joy in her belly? He felt the pain of her goodbye, smiling tears and too many blessings. He was young. Too young, but just young enough to go to the wilderness with nothing but longing. He didn’t know it at fifteen, but someone had to become the one they now called the Baptizer. And then all the people who began coming to him in the Jordan! They needed the fire he had kindled inside him over years of cold desert nights. He knew the words of the prophets of old like they were his, and some of them became his as much as theirs. The people listened. They heard God in his voice.
He hadn’t been alone for all those years. People came to him in the desert. Most came and went, but some stayed. Young men, 18, 16, 15. Men just like him, who felt the longing stronger than those who came just to be baptized. They built huts, but John refused to sleep in them. He needed to sing to the stars, quieter now, because in their presence, privacy had begun to matter. Community was the reward of his success as a prophet, but it cost him the naked joy of unbridled midnight songs. He kept his singing to himself, until desperate, there in the cell, he coaxed his silent neighbor with as many hymns as he could remember to no avail.
His light continued to lunge and lean away. He could tell by her sputtering that she would not last long. In preparation for the darkness, he turned his mind to Jesus. The One who had come to take away the sins of the world, the One for whom John was born, and for whom Baby John had leapt. Of course he couldn’t remember it, but he had done more conscious leaping since. His own insides leapt when God told him, that it was him, Jesus, Mary’s son, for whom he had been longing all those years. John chuckled, He wasn’t even wearing sandals when he showed up that day to be baptized–when he came “to fulfill all righteousness,” he said. His objection was mostly for show. It was clear to him that God’s lamb would humble himself like this, and then God made it clear to everyone who was there. Heaven opened up, brighter than any star, and they heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Nonetheless, he felt his mother’s pain when he told his disciples to go and follow Jesus. “He must increase but I must decrease.” That’s what he told the Pharisees when they came to him at Aenon near Salim, and he still knew it was the right thing to say, but the loss was real. How long had those men stayed with him? Jonathan, Gideon and Samson; the judges; Simeon, John, the younger, Seth and Eliel. They were all following Jesus now. He didn’t even want them to stay when they first came, but they had broken his resistance. They had penetrated his solitude. How many times must I be made and unmade, Lord?
He feared this was the last time. Herod would let him rot in this cell, and it wouldn’t take forever for his body to do so. He tried to accept that, but regret crept into his confidence. When he had shouted those words at Herod about his brother’s wife he felt nothing but confidence. That charlatan! King of the Jews? Leave your Mediterranean morality across the sea. “It is not lawful for you to have her,” he said. And he was right, but did he have to say it? Was this how God wanted it all to end?
But “the Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” John said that himself. Did he believe it? Did he believe in the Son? Is this the life he was meant to see? In the darkness, it was hard to see anything clearly. Jesus had not done what John had expected. He went back to Galilee. He said little of Herod. He spoke almost nothing of the Romans. It seemed like he didn’t care. When would Israel be delivered, and how in the world would this deliverer ever deliver them?
But tonight, with the torch dancing in his eyes, he was swinging away from his questions. He was even a little embarrassed that he had sent that message to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Not long after he was arrested he got the chance to send word. The torch was lit one night and it happened to mean visitors–for him. Jonathan and Simeon, his old friends, had come to see him. Simeon’s father was not Jewish, a Roman Guard Commander in Joppa, but his Father’s brother, a man named Atilius, was a guard in the prison. It was Atilius who had arranged for his nephew, Simeon, to come with Jonathan.
They couldn’t stay long. Atilius stood guard at the door and preferred not to be seen. Their chance of discovery was low, but not impossible. At that point in his captivity, John’s light-longing desperation had not yet grown to the point where he watched under the door when the torch was lit, but he did hear the shuffle of their feet when they came. He was frightened when the bar of light beneath his door didn’t flicker with shadows of passing feet, but was steadily eclipsed by people standing on the other side.
And then the click of the lock.
When Jonathan and Simeon came into the cell the fear subsided only when they spoke. They were faceless silhouettes and his eyes hadn’t focused on anything for too long. “Master!” They said in unison, and they hugged him in a clump in his corner. What had he mastered, though? They told him of all the things Jesus was doing. The healings, the signs and wonders, but also the things he had said. John had heard tell of some of these things too, when he was free.
Forgiveness of sins? Breaking the Sabbath? “Could such a man really be the One?” Jonathan asked. There was an urgency in his voice. John wondered too, even worried. Atilius rapped the door three times. Their conversation was over.
“You will ask him,” John said. He stood feebly on his weakened knees, “Send this message to Jesus the Nazarene, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” And they were gone.
That could have been months ago. How could he tell? However long it had been, that question had eaten a hollowness in him that only the thought of Jesus could fill. Only the warmth of that light from heaven by the Jordan could satisfy this hunger, this need, this lack… The joy that was completed in that task was overwhelming in the moment, but had faded to a glimmer in the dark.
“Of course, he is the one,” he whispered aloud to the light in the hall. At that very moment she went out. Her dance was done and with her went some of his hope. “Of course he is the one,” he repeated to the darkness, and immediately it felt less true.
Several hours later, maybe, he awoke to footsteps in the hall. He had slept with his face still pressed against the wood of the door. He rubbed his forehead and felt the wood’s ridges printed in his skin. He smiled about that, eyes closed as he greeted whoever it was that was opening his door. “John the Baptizer, your time has come.” It was Atilius. He walked John by the arm down the hall and up a flight of shallow stairs. John stumbled, but Atilius’ strong arm held him up, almost gently. Sensing compassion, John looked the soldier in the face, and there were tears in his eyes. As he led him around a corner and into a larger room where other soldiers were waiting, he whispered in John’s ear. This message from Simeon your disciple, from Jesus the Nazarene.
“The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Then Atilius added his own “I’m sorry.”
Those who waited for John took him from Atilius without a shred of gentleness. As they tied his hands behind his back, a man sharpened an axe. John chuckled. Fitting that they would use an axe.