Unlike James whose mother was probably Mary's sister, John was not related closely enough to Jesus to go down in history as, "the brother of the Lord." He was a cousin, none the less, and he must have had at least occasional contact with Jesus in his childhood and youth.
It is reasonable to assume that within the extended family, John would have been considered to be more religious than Jesus. As a young man of priestly descent, he joined the Essenes, a group whose asceticism and devotion to The Torah were legendary. John believed, and rightly so, that he had been chosen to prepare the way for the Messiah and to this end he emerged from his monastic life in the desert to preach repentance and to baptize those who agreed to change their ways. This baptism was a symbol of the moral purity to which they were dedicating themselves. Its roots were in the ritual baths of purification as prescribed by The Torah. But he always maintained that one of the first things The Messiah would do would be to introduce the definitive baptism, which would transcend symbolism.
John, having been graced to recognise Jesus, his cousin, as The Promised One, reluctantly gave in to His request to be baptized and was rewarded with a powerful vision of Jesus' Divine Nature. This is regarded by the Church as the third of the great Christmas epiphanies; the other two being the Nativity and the visit of the Magi.
Soon thereafter, John urged his disciples to follow Jesus. His work was done, but he continued to preach and to put the fear of God into people of all social classes, even royalty. That is how he got into serious trouble. He attacked the king's morals and was condemned to death. In spite of his precarious position, he took it for granted that once Jesus heard about his arrest He would unleash the very power of heaven and it would be Herod and his family that would have reason to fear for their lives. But it didn't happen that way. Jesus, he was told, was turning out to be meek and humble, gentle and forgiving. At that moment John lost faith in Jesus. He became depressed and the pillars of his Messianic expectations crumbled. Before he died he came to rejoice in the truth but he surely went through what Saint Teresa and others have since called, "the dark night of the soul."
Clearly, even the most faithful of God's people sometimes confuse their will with God's will...their vision with God's vision. As a result, their faith is often sorely tried. Can any of us expect less?
It was for this that Jesus accepted John's baptism. It was to illustrate His union with us, His understanding and His compassion.
Sometimes it is really hard to believe. Sometimes doubt and despair threaten to overwhelm us. I believe that, when all is said and done, and we stand before our Judge and Saviour, we will see that those times were in fact blessed beyond all others.