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 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 councels are not your councels, 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, Septuagint).
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. The life path of this prophet 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 in 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.
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 his son would be the one who would proclaim the awaited Saviour and 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 about the miraculous conception of the son, proclaimed by the Archangel 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). This Divine youth became an instrument of Divine Grace, grew and was strengthened by the Holy Spirit. With Elizabeth stopped to be barren, Zechariah’s numbness also ended when he wrote the name of his son “John” on a writing tablet, which means “the grace of God”. Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, glorified God and prophesied about the appearance of the Messiah in the world, and about his son John, the Forerunner of the Lord. «O what a miracle! – st. John Chrysostom exclaims. – The word abides and the voice foretells; the Master comes, and the slave is sent before Him. So, let us rejoice that Elisabeth gave birth and Zechariah started to talk, that the barren one produced and the elder exclaimed, the priestly language was freed and the voice returned, that the Forerunner appeared and the whole world rejoiced.»
After the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ and the worshipping of the shepherds and the magi, the wicked King Herod commanded to kill all babies. By the grace of God, baby John avoided death among the thousands of babies killed by King Herod in Bethlehem. The news of the miraculous birth of John reached the ears of the wicked Herod. He began to ponder: can it be that he is be the king of the Jews, about whom the Eastern magi had prophesied. Therefore, tormented by malice, Herod decided to kill baby John, about whom he had heard many wondrous things. For that purpose he sent his soldiers to Zechariah, but they did not find holy baby John.
When the murders of children began in Bethlehem, the voice and cry of the unfortunate mothers reached John’s mother, Elisabeth, and she took youth John and hurriedly set off for the high mountains of the desert. Elisabeth prayed to God with tears, asking for the protection of her and the boy. When she saw the approaching soldiers, she cried out, turning to the stone rock: “Mountain of God, let a mother with a child in!” And immediately the mountain parted and took in Elizabeth with youth John – and thus hid them from the pursuing murderers. At that time saint Zechariah was at the service in the Ierosalim Temple. Herod sent soldiers to the temple to Zechariah so that he would give them his son. Fierce as beasts, Herod’s soldiers said to the priest of God: “Where are you hiding your son? Give him to us, for the king ordered us to kill you immediately, if you do not give us your son. “
Zechariah courageously replied to that: “You will kill my body, but the Lord will accept my soul.” Immediately the murderers rushed with fury at the saint and killed him «between the temple and the altar» (Matt. 23:35). His shed blood, absorbed, remained forever on the stone floor as an evidence of Herod’s crime and his eternal condemnation. Elisabeth, hidden by God along with John, was in the wilderness, fed by God’s command with date fruits, and watered from a spring that had appeared. When, after some time, saint Elizabeth reposed in the Lord, holy baby John was nourished by an Angel until his adulthood, kept until the day of his appearance to the Israelites (Luke 1:80), when the Lord called him to the prophetic ministry. Thus, the hand of God kept and covered saint John the Forerunner, preparing him for the great ministry of the salvation of the human race.
Saint John Chrysostom in his Word for the Nativity of John the Forerunner writes: «Not after his birth John received grace, but from his mother’s womb, clothed with consecration, he became a wondrous leader, as the Angel said: «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, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli′jah» (Luke 1:15), since John had many similarities with Elijah.»
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 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.”
Brothers and sisters, 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 licantious 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!