Many wondrous and glorious things are said in the Gospel about John the Forerunner. He was a prophet, that is, he proclaimed the will of God to people, which consists in repentance and cleansing from sins: «Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand» (Matt. 3:2) – these are the words of the voice of God, which the Baptist uttered in the Jordan desert, calling the chosen people of Israel, who were increasingly moving away from God, to repentance.
Prophets are people of great spirit who have been vouchsafed to hear God Himself. The life paths of the prophets are full of hardships and sorrows. Prophet Amos says that God, having called the prophet to His ministry, reveals His secrets to him (Am. 3:7). It is written about prophet Isaiah that in a vision he saw God «sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up», and suddenly heard the voice of the Lord saying: «Whom shall I send?» And Isaiah said: «Here I am, send me» (Is. 6: 1-8). God calls the prophets to serve Him, leading them into His paths, about which He says: «For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts» (Is. 55:8, 9).
Among the prophets whom God called on His path, among all who served Him by the exploits of their lives, there is one who is called the greatest among the prophets – this is John the Baptist. His life path is majestic and tragic. The Gospel of Mark says about him that he is «the voice of one crying in the wilderness» (Mark 1:3), that is, he is the voice of God, the one who proclaims His Good News, speaking in the wilderness of human souls and hearts that have departed from the Living God. The Church Scriptures also call him that the Angel of the Desert, the morning star, foreshadowing the rising of the daylight (Mal. 4:2). He is also called the friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:29), because, forgetting about himself, he serves the happiness and greatness of the Other One, keeping and protecting His joy and love. In this Divine friendship John and his disciples did everything so that the greatness of the Savior coming into the world could increase; this is why the prophet says about Christ to his disciples: «He must increase, but I must decrease» (John 3:30).
John’s whole life was a feat of devoted service to the Lord and faithfulness to his calling as a prophet, up until his martyrdom, which is glorified by the Church, for «precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints» (Psalm 116:15). Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself testified to the greatness of the life of John the Baptist, saying: «Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist» (Matt. 11:11). According to the greatness of his feat his image is placed in the church iconostasis together with the image of the Most Holy Mother of God at the throne of the Lord Almighty, as they are the saints who have great grace and audacity to pray to God for the entire human race.
On the day after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Holy Church established a feast called the Assembly of the Holy Prophet and Forerunner, Baptist of the Lord John, in which the prophet who served at the Baptism of the Savior is glorified. In honour of this saint of God, the Holy Church established several holidays: September 23/October 6 – Conception, July 24/7 – Nativity, August 29/September 11 – Beheading, February 24/March 9 – the First and Second Finding of His Honourable Head; May 25/June 7 – its Third Finding.
Prophet John was the son of righteous parents: the priest of the Jerusalem Temple Zechariah and his wife Elisabeth, descendants of Aaron. On the maternal side, John was related to Jesus Christ and was born six months earlier than Him. Zechariah and Elisabeth lived to the old age and had no children, which they grieved very much, for at that time it was considered a great misfortune and shame. The Lord heeded the prayer of the righteous spouses and sent Archangel Gabriel to announce the birth of a son to Zechariah. The messenger of God said that he who would be born «will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God» (Luke 1:15-16). The Archangel also predicted that the one who was born would have the spirit and strength of Elijah the Prophet «to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared» (Luke 1:17). Zechariah, hearing from the Archangel about the miraculous conception of the son, was surprised by that news and found it incredible, for which he was punished with dumbness until the very birth of his son. John, being in the womb of his mother, greeted the Saviour in the womb of His Mother, according to the decision of God: «And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High» (Luke 1:76). With Elizabeth delivered the child, Zechariah’s numbness also ended when he wrote the name of his son “John” on a writing tablet, which means “the grace of God.” That Divine youth became an instrument of Divine Grace, grew and was strengthened by the Holy Spirit and, by the grace of God, escaped the death among the thousands of babies killed by King Herod in Bethlehem.
Saint John prepared himself for the great service of God, from infancy living in the wilderness, far from the noisy world. He led a strict ascetic life in fasting and prayer, wore coarse camel-hair garments girdled by a leather belt, and ate wild honey and other meagre fruits of the desert. In that way the prophet stayed in the wilderness «till the day of his manifestation to Israel» (Luke 1:80), when the Lord called him to ministry.
«John baptized with the baptism of repentance» (Acts 19:4), and John’s preaching was worthy of his lifestyle, because in it he called for repentance and temperance. He said that before receiving external washing, people had to be morally cleansed. The Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him, the prophet denounced with cruel words: «You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?» (Matt. 3: 7) – and threatened them with unquenchable fire, saying that the Lord «will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire» (Luke 3:12).
Having received the revelation that the Saviour of the world, Lord Jesus Christ Himself, came to Jordan to be baptized, John said to the people about Him: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Saint Gregory Palamas in his homily “On All-honorable Christ’s Forerunner and Baptist John” writes: “Not only in word, but also in deed, he showed Him to everyone, baptizing Him and pointing Him with a finger to all, and showing to his disciples, and testifying in everything, that He Who comes to him is the Son of the Father, the Lamb of God, the Bridegroom of souls, Who takes on Himself the sins of the world, Who removes the uncleanness and brings in and bestows sanctification instead.”
By baptizing Jesus, John fulfilled everything for which he was sent into the world, according to the prophecy: «You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways» (Luke 1:76). John did not grieve that he had already accomplished everything the Lord had foretold. And the more the great prophet «decreased» before the wisdom and power of Christ, the more he increased in joy about the Heavenly Bridegroom, about the Lord Jesus Christ, whose veneration among the people grew more and more. All the holy ascetics did that: when the Lord gave them power and glory, they always repeated that only by God’s power they work miracles, and, following the words of the prophet John: «He must increase, but I must decrease» (John 3:30), and rejoiced with all their heart when the Lord removed glory and honour from them.
John the Baptist humbly yielded to the Lord to carry the Good News and teach the people, but did not completely stop his prophetic ministry. He fearlessly and strictly denounced the vices of both the ordinary people and the powerful of this world. For that he soon suffered. At that time, Judea was ruled by Herod the tetrarch, the son of Herod the child-killer, who surpassed his father in lawlessness. Knowing that, John could not remain silent, being the voice of Truth, and reproached the king for his sins, especially for Herodias, the wife of Philip, Herod’s brother, with whom he unlawfully cohabited. Of course, John knew that he was facing certain death for the reproof of the king, but he could not act otherwise when the Law given by God through Moses was trampled on. John, like the prophets who had been before him, was zealous about the righteous life and denounced deviations from the Law regardless of faces, showing faithfulness to Him whom he baptized.
Herod made a feast on his birthday and invited many distinguished guests. At that feast the daughter of the ungodly Herodias danced in front of everyone and that shameless dance pleased licentious Herod so much that the king with an oath promised to give the girl everything she wanted, even up to the half of his kingdom. Herod took an oath out of love of fame and pride and as a result of intoxication, which is voluntary madness. «How much is the fruit of drunkenness – just a fornicatress dancer danced with a twirling and pleased drunk Herod» (Homily on the Beheading of John the Baptist). Hearing that offer of the insane king, “the shameless girl hurried to her mother and the teacher of these obscene jumps and bends,” writes Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas, “announced to her that the king had bound himself with an oath, asked for instructions on what to ask for, and received her instruction… She returned to the king and, without blushing, blurted out her request: «I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter» (Mk. 6:25). Herod was saddened by this request, for he «feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man» (Mk. 6:20). “Herod was afraid of John because of the height of his virtue, but he was not afraid of God, from Whom virtue comes,” writes St. Gregory Palamas, “he was afraid of him because of the people, because people considered him a prophet … he was afraid of their condemnation, wishing their praise. But Herodias, being wise to do evil, freed him from that fear and encouraged him to murder,” convincing him that that murder should be committed out of respect for the oath, and not out of hatred for the righteous and denouncer John.
«And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her» (Mark 6:26). Therefore, having sent the executioner to prison, he beheaded John, and the head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she carried it to her mother. According to the tradition, the head of John again denounced the licentious Herodias, and in anger she pierced her tongue with a pin. Having abused the severed head, the bloodthirsty fornicatress ordered to throw it into a latrine.
The disciples of John the Baptist buried his body, and the pious Joanna, the wife of the steward of Herod, buried the honourable head in a vessel on the Mount of Olives. Subsequently, the head of John the Forerunner was reburied several times and found by pious people. Thus, it is narrated that a certain ascetic, digging a ditch for the foundation of a church, found this treasure and kept it at home, and before his death, fearing the desecration of the relic, he hid the head of John in the ground, in the same place where he had found it. During the reign of Constantine the Great, two monks came to Ierosalim to worship the Holy Sepulchre, and John the Forerunner appeared to them and indicated where his head was buried. From that time on the Holy Church began to celebrate the Finding of the Head of John the Forerunner.
For his atrocity, Herod received deserved retribution – his troops were soon defeated, and he himself was got into captivity where he died in dishonour. A painful death soon overtook dissolute Herodias and her dancer daughter, who, according to the tradition, fell into an ice-hole, and was beheaded by ice.
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5: 8), the Apostle writes. Sacrificing one’s life is the highest manifestation of love; this supreme love, in obedience to his calling, was shown by «the friend of the Bridegroom» John. We remember how John told his disciples that Jesus should increase and he should decrease, but not all disciples understood those words. Then John, already in prison, sent his disciples to ask Him: «Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?» (Matt. 11:3). John Chrysostom, interpreting this passage of the Gospel, says that, of course, it could not be that the Forerunner doubted, and if He sent his disciples with such a question to Jesus, then he did it not for himself, but for the sake of his disciples, so that they recognize the Lord and make sure themselves that He was superior to John. And when the disciples came to Jesus and asked: «Are you the one?» – then He, seeing the plan of John by the Spirit, also answered, as if not for them: «Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 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» (Matt. 11: 4-6). When John’s disciples left, Jesus turned to those around him so that they, in turn, did not stumble on acount of John the Baptist. He did not start to convince them that the one who greeted his Lord with a leap in his mother’s womb could not doubt, that the one who preached the coming of Christ and baptized Him himself and at that moment saw the Holy Spirit and heard from heaven the words about the greatness of the Baptized could not hesitate in the faith. Christ did not start to explain anything, He only called on the people to remember the appearance of the Baptist. And then he added: «What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?» (Luke 7:24). The Lord says by this that there was no hesitation in the soul of the Forerunner, but there was a desire for his disciples to believe in Christ, seeing His miracles, hearing His preaching.
But, having instructed the people about John, the Lord warns them against human excessive glorification of him, since the people have not yet cognized the greatness of the Lord Himself. He says that although «among those who are born of women there is no greater prophet than John the Baptist. Yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he» (Luke 7:28). Before the Son of God, by His sacrifice on the cross, opened the entrance to the Kingdom of God, all people, even the righteous, went to hell after death. John the Baptist was beheaded before the Resurrection of Christ and also descended into hell, preaching the Good News to those in hell of God, who appeared in flesh» (troparion). He stayed there, preaching the Good News of the coming of the Saviour into the world, until the Risen Lord, breaking the bonds of hell, brought him out together with all the righteous who had waited for that with faith and hope.
Today the Holy Church glorifies John the Baptist as an angel and apostle, a martyr and a prophet, the voice of God and a friend of Christ. He had the ultimate, unshakable faith, which requires neither signs, nor testimonies, nor proofs, for throughout his whole life he heard the voice of the Lord in the depths of his soul, commanding him to do the works of a prophet. That is why it takes our breath away when we remember and glorify the feat of the one who was born a natural birth, but grew up, strengthened by God’s grace, to the high spiritual state, endured the full weight of a martyr’s end and always followed the strengthening command of God: «But he who endures to the end will be saved» (Matt. 24:13). Saint Gregory Palamas writes about the death of John: “He was sent by the Lord to give the knowledge of salvation to His people and to denounce the unbelievers, for which reason he was beheaded… But the saints must, according to the commandment of the Lord, lay down their souls for virtue and piety: and this is why a violent death, suffered for the good, corresponded to them better endured for good; this is why the Lord also tasted the same death… so that we too would be ready to resist sin to death.”
Brethren, honouring the memory of the great preacher of repentance, let us imitate his virtues and spiritual feats, let us strive to fulfill what he bequeathed to us in his fiery sermons. Even now they thunder menacingly against evil and vice, as they thundered on the banks of the Jordan in those days.
«Repent,» the prophet calls on. Leave the bad deeds, show the good, but «bear fruit worthy of repentance» (Luke 3:8). “How can we bear it?” – asks Saint John Chrysostom and answers: “Did you steal someone else’s? Now give yours. Have you insulted your neighbor? Now do good to the one who offends you. Have you indulged in overeating and drunkenness? From now on fast, try not to drink wine, imitating John, who did not drink «neither wine nor strong drink» (Luke 1:15). Have you been seduced by fornication and looked at bodily beauty with sinful eyes? From now on, don’t look at it at all. «Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace» (Ps. 34:14) with God and people, thus «prepare the way of the Lord» (Matt. 3:3) in your heart; and He will take on your sins, He is waiting for your repentance, He is «the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!» (John 1:29)
We live in the time of grace, for Christ the Savior gave authority to His disciples – the apostles, and through them also the subsequent bishops and priests – to absolve those who truly repent of their sins. Therefore, let us ask for help from the preacher of repentance in the difficult task of resisting sinful leprosy. “After his birth, he was persecuted by child-killer Herod, who wanted to kill him because of his hatred of Christ,” writes Holy Hierarch Gregory Palamas, “and we, after our spiritual birth, are attacked by spiritual Herod, and he persecutes Christ in us; therefore, we have also fled from the world to the places dedicated to God… Thus, let us flee from his cruel spear-bearers and sword-bearers, that is, the exciters of passions that separate man from God. This is the death that through our “windows”, that is, through the senses, enters us… through passionate sights and spectacles, verbose and shameful stories and conversations and injures and causes serious harm to our inner man.”
Holy Prophet John lived without a roof over his head, let us be content with a modest dwelling. He was content with the meagre food of the desert, had only one clothing, let us, like him, be non-possessive, unpretentious and patient in all privations. Avoiding sinful sensual pleasures, let us maintain purity of sould and body, modesty and pudency. Let us keep the family relationships blessed by the Lord in peace and love, avoid lures and adultery, so as not to become like the licentious lawless Herod and Herodias.
Let us try, like John the Baptist, to live according to God’s law, fearing more the judgment of God and of our conscience than the judgment of men, pleasing God and not people. Let us, like the innocent sufferer John the Forerunner, love the truth and not be afraid if it is necessary to suffer for it. Let us pray in the contrition for our sins to the preacher of repentance John, so that by his prayer before God he helps us on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, where may the Saviour receive our souls renewed by repentance, for He is the God of those who repent! Glory to our God, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, amen!