There’s nothing “common” about the life of Saint John the Forerunner. He stands as the single most important man in the history of humanity. What about Christ? He stands as the God-man. What about the Mother of God? She is the Queen of Heaven. Our Lord said of Saint John, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mat 11:11) “None greater” is qualified in our Lord’s praise for the Baptist by adding “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater.” Who is this “least”? It is the Mother of God. And even here we find harmony with our Lord’s other words, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Mat 20:16)
When we refer to St. John, we give him three titles – Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist. He fulfilled all three.
As a prophet as he foretold the coming of the Son of God.
As Forerunner he called Israel to repentance before the Lord’s mission began, a mission which the Lord Himself began by echoing St. John’s call, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Mat 3:2 with St. John, 4:17 for the Lord) St. John even pointed to Christ before this day of his nativity, as he leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when he found his Savior before him within the womb of the Theotokos as she visited her relative.
As Baptist, he in obedience laid his hands upon the Master to give us, and Christians for all time, the example of dying to this life to be reborn into life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
St. John was born in a miraculous way, being a gift to his aged parents Zacharias and Elizabeth. Being announced by the Archangel Gabriel, Zacharias disbelieved that he could father a child being as old as he and his wife were, and for his disbelief he was struck dumb, only to regain his voice when, on the day of the circumcision of his son (eight days hence), he would confirm his name to be John by writing on a tablet, upon which he sprung into verbal praise for God.
There is also a ‘miracle’ within what this birth means to Israel. At this time in the land of Israel, there had been no prophet for hundreds of years. The Prophet Malachi was the last prophet, roughly 350BC. Now Zacharias, the priest, has no voice. And the evil king Herod was not really Jewish and ruled in collaboration with the Romans. Thus the three offices of the Savior, Prophet, Priest, and King, we vacant, silent, or illegitimate. Seven hundred years earlier, the Prophet Isaiah foretold of this child: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'" (Isa 40:3) God in His wisdom “prepared the way” for His Savior by bringing the greatest of prophets, one who could change the hearts of the people and give them a path and a desire to return to the Lord.
Who is Saint John, then? As a child, he was within the age group which Herod would attempt to snuff out with his decree to slaughter young boys when he learned about the birth of Jesus. Tradition holds that soldiers came to Zacharias in the temple and asked him to give them his son. When the Saint told them he did not know where Elizabeth and the child were, they murdered Zacharias in the Temple.
Elizabeth took the child into the wilderness to hide from those who sought his death, hiding herself and St. John in a cave. Again, tradition holds that she died 40 days later, and the boy grew up alone in the wilderness, fed and cared for by angels, and protected by God.
Here, he learned the ascetic way of life, living on only what God would provide for that very day. He ate locusts and wild honey. In his asceticism, he became fearless in preaching God’s truth to all who needed to hear. He called both the lowly and the powerful to the same repentance. Ultimately, his renouncing of the immorality of the King led to his beheading, killed because those in power loved that power and authority more than they loved God and truth and right.
As we can see, there is nothing about the saint that we would consider in any way to be “normal”. His conception, his parents, his upbringing, his ministry, his death – all are abnormal by any worldly standard. And within this observation is perhaps the most salient point about what we should take from this Feast. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord.” (Isa 55:8) Again, our Lord’s own commandments to us highlight this concept, as He teaches us, “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mat 5:48) We are called to something beyond this world. Heaven is not of this world, and yet it is the place we call “home”! None would call this world a place where barren old women give birth, where prophets are born as a result, where a virgin carries God the Son in her womb, where governments and nations are toppled by the actions of babies, and where confused old men speak God’s own words with boldness and clarity! This world is not a place where a person who leads an austere life, clad in camel’s hair, paves the way for the One Who is King of Creation! And yet, this IS what happened, because these ARE God’s plans. He accomplished EXACTLY this, with EXACTLY these people and these conditions.
This is not the God of “just” Zacharias and Elizabeth. He is our God. And He calls us to the same outrageous faith – in our hearts, in our lives, in our churches, in our world. He calls us to see HIS authority over all things. He calls us to believe (as Zacharias didn’t at first) that whatever may seem to be impossible for men is totally possible with God. In the world, it’s not possible to forgive your enemies. With God, this is possible. In the world, it is frowned upon to love the downtrodden, the poor, the needy, the destitute. With God, this is a requirement. In the world, it is impossible to be “perfect.” With God, this is our calling!
Those things in this world which bring people (including ourselves) to places of weakness, despair, sorrow, hatred, putting self above others, and every mentionable human failing, all of these human conditions will continue unabated or even grow in magnitude within us unless we submit to God’s call to “radical change” in our own lives. A small seed of “religion” allowed to exist in the margins of our lives may give us the appearance to others of some degree of caring and respectability, but this seed will not bear the desired fruit - to aid our attempt to take the Kingdom of Heaven by force. We are part of the “Church Militant.” Our Lord Himself said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Mat 11:12) In explaining this verse, the Orthodox Study Bible says, “The Kingdom of Heaven belongs not to the sleeping or lazy.”
In the time of our Lord’s ministry, the people of Israel needed “a wake-up call”. St. John was God’s gift to them to do just that.
His message has even more relevance in today’s world. Who can look at the world around us today and say that we are in any less of a position of needing a spiritual awakening?
God’s plan for mankind’s salvation is integrally tied to the life and ministry of St. John the Forerunner. It was true in the time of our Lord’s ministry. It has been true for 2000 years. It is even more true in 2020. If we can find in St. John’s words, in his call to repentance, and in his living a pure life conforming to God’s will an example with which we are willing to conform, even if “imperfectly” at first, then we will honor his memory as is fitting for the Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist, and we will have gone a long way toward attempting - as best we can - to conform to our Lord’s call to “be perfect” ourselves.