It was Isaiah who revealed many years before the Lord’s coming of a messenger from the wilderness, crying out: “Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Is.40:3) When the time had come to fulfill this prophecy, the Archangel Gabriel was sent to the high priest Zachariah while he was serving in the Sanctuary to announce to him the good news of the future birth of his son. Zachariah was greatly disturbed at this news and was stricken with dumbness for his disbelief. The people awaited Zachariah, wondering at his tarrying in the Sanctuary; but when he came out and could not speak to them, but only made signs, they all understood that he had beheld a vision. After the birth of the Forerunner of the Lord, Zachariah wrote down the grace-filled name inspired by the Archangel. Immediately his lips and tongue were loosened, and he spoke, blessing God and prophesying, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest.”
The power of the Most High ended the barrenness of the righteous Elizabeth, who was beyond the natural age for bearing children. She kept her conception secret for five whole months. But in her sixth month, her cousin, the holy Virgin Mary, who immaculately was carrying the Christ, visited her. Then, filled with the Holy Spirit, she knew that the Lord had dealt patiently with her to not only take away her reproach among men, but also to provide her the opportunity to greet the Savior of the world even before His miraculous birth. This babe, who was to go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elias the great prophet of old, was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb and consecrated for a great ministry before his birth. Even from there, he was revealed as a marvelous prophet, when he rejoiced at the coming of the Mother of the Lord and recognized God in the womb of her who is full of grace.
Because St. John was only six months older than the Christ, he was sought after by Herod. Even while still a babe, he terrified King Herod. The ungodly command of this lawless murderer of over 14,000 innocent children drove John and his mother out of his father’s house into the wilderness. There, St. John dwelt until the day of his appearance to Israel, becoming a rose of the desert. While in the desert, he clothed himself with camel’s hair, girded his waist with a leather belt and ate sparingly from what the desert could provide. It is a miracle in and of itself that he was a lover of asceticism from his infancy. He has been called a preserver of purity and chastity, a perfect example of the self-denial of the Gospel, the monastic’s protection and security, enlightenment of the theologians’ minds, a glorious preacher and a divine Forerunner. St. John was an angel in the flesh and a preacher of repentance. He shone as a light of truth, enlightened by God, to preach repentance, to announce the presence of the kingdom of Heaven, and to harvest fruit worthy of repentance. He was a herald of the coming of the Messiah, a preparer of the paths of the Lord, and intercessor of the old and new Grace. He marked the end of the prophets of the Old Testament and the beginning of the Apostles.
When the time had come for the Lord to begin His public ministry, the Holy Spirit led St. John out of the wilderness to the Jordan River. There, he began to baptize the children of Israel for repentance, preparing them to become disciples of the Incarnate Lord. When the Lord Jesus wanted to be baptized, the divinely blessed John said, “I have need to be baptized by You;” however, submitting to Him Who said, “Let it be so now!” he baptized Him. This great blessing bestowed upon him by the Lord allowed him to behold the coming of the Spirit and to hear the voice of the Father testifying to the Sonship of Jesus. Having beheld this strange and ineffable humility of the Incarnate God the Word, St. John himself was wholly filled with great humility thereby becoming the first imitator of Christ. Inspired by this humility, it was John who said to his disciples, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn.3:30) In this way, St. John continued to point the way for the world to recognize and follow the Lord.
So zealous for the truth was he that he exposed the hypocrisy and error of the Pharisees and held accountable to God’s commandments the lawless Herod, from whom he received a martyr’s end. It was his zeal and unyielding commitment to be pleasing to God alone that inspired the words of our Lord:
What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Mt.11:7-15)
After baptizing Jesus in the Jordan, John was arrested by Herod the tetrarch. Because Herod was wicked and strove to please men more than God, he was deceived into beheading John by his sister-in-law, Herodias. We remember the beheading of John the Baptist on August 29th. This is always a strict fast day, even though we celebrate a Divine Liturgy, because the day contains both sadness, for it was the tragic end to a righteous man’s earthly life, and joy, for it was his victorious entrance into the eternal bliss of God’s heavenly Kingdom. It is also a strict fast day to remember the ascetic example set forth by St. John. It was the purity, chastity of heart and freedom from his passions that came about through his ascetic cooperation with God that allowed him to remain filled with the Holy Spirit and a worthy vessel of God’s grace.
Holy Tradition teaches us that St. John preceded the Lord into Hades to proclaim the Good News to the captives. Like the morning star preceding the sun, he illumined those sitting in the darkness and shadow of death; from where he was soon lead forth by the Lord with all the righteous from the beginning of the age. In this way, he became the forerunner of Christ to both the living and the dead amongst all those whose time came before the birth of the Church. Holy Tradition also teaches us that St. John holds a position of honor among the Saints second to that of the Theotokos alone. He brings the prayers and concerns of the faithful before the Lord with the same powerful zeal and boldness he exemplified in his earthly life. In this way, he is a wall and saving refuge to all that hasten to him in prayer. St. John is a mighty intercessor and deliverer of those who suffer from the spirits of malice. He is a patron to those who are barren, and an aid to those suffering from the disturbance of passions. At the hour of death, St. John is a protector of souls from the evil demons who stand ready to accuse. In short, he is a defense of the helpless, the poor, widows and orphans. After God and the Theotokos, he is the refuge and hope of all Christians.