203. Happy Birthday, John the Baptist!

The Nativity of the Holy Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist – June 24

Gospel: Luke 1:1-25, 57-68, 76-80

It must have scared the old priest Zachariah nearly out of his wits. He was certain he had gone alone into The Holy Place to offer the evening sacrifice of incense *, when suddenly he realized he was not alone. Someone was there with him.

And a voice: “Do not be afraid, Zachariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he 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, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.”

  • We Orthodox still sing Psalm 140/141 at Vespers as we cense the Altar: “Let my prayer arise as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice…”

Zachariah bravely asked the angel, “How shall I know this? * For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The voice came again, “I am Gabriel [“God is my strength”], who stand in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” Then just as suddenly Zachariah was alone again.

  • Mary asked Gabriel “How can this be?”, and he gave her the answer.  Zachariah asked essentially the same question, and he was struck dumb. Why?

Priesthood in Judaism was inherited and by now there many priests, so each served only occasionally, chosen by lot. Deep into the temple (just outside the Holy of Holies where one priest went alone once a year) was an altar where one priest went each morning and another each evening to offer incense. That evening it had been Zachariah’s turn.

“The people were waiting for Zachariah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”

Before John’s Birth

Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth were both old and childless. So far as I have found we Orthodox have no tradition about their age. (Muslims say he was 92.) Like Abraham and Sarah, like Joachim and Anna, they would now become symbols of how God can bring life out of our spiritual barrenness. (Even when we think it’s too late for us or for the world… it isn’t.) Elizabeth was cousin to the Virgin Mary – though the word “cousin” in the Middle East can have a wide variety of applications. In any event, that made Jesus and John “cousins” as well.

No doubt the Virgin Mary was eager to get out of Nazareth before she became too visibly pregnant. (I grew up in a small village, and I know how anybody’s business there is everybody’s business.) So she “hurried”, it says, to visit her cousin Elizabeth who lived in the hill country of Judaea, probably in Ein Karem. Quite a journey – about a forty hour walk, if that’s how she did it.

I can imagine her entering the door and crying “Elizabeth!”, so glad to see her older cousin who could guide her through this difficult time. Immediately Elizabeth’s baby gave a good hard kick in her womb!, and “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Luke 1:39-45 Elizabeth knew! And so did John! It’s worth noting that in Elizabeth’s womb was a person who recognized his Lord.

If I calculate right, Mary returned to Nazareth not long before John was born.

John’s Birth

As in any small town, as soon as Elizabeth had recovered a bit, “her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her”. For this was an amazing birth. Imagine – at her age! at their age! a true gift of God. And “they rejoiced with her”.

“And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zachariah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relations are called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marveled.

“And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors.  And his father Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people… And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.’ And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.”

Here was the one predicted in the last chapter of the last prophet in the Old Testament: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” Malachi 4:5 And after that there had been no prophets – for four hundred long years.

If you want to know how Luke knew this story, he tells us at the beginning of his Gospel account. “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them to us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word.” Luke 1 1-2  Luke wrote about the year 80 (educated guess), but before then he had gone back and interviewed the old people in the hill country of Judaea who had remembered these things, “laid them up in their hearts”. andalso  the younger ones who had heard these remarkable stories from their parents and grandparents. Saint Luke: “the world’s first newsman”.

John’s Hidden Life

Luke continues: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” Orthodox tradition fills in the story. When Herod’s soldiers slaughtered the boy babies of Bethlehem, they also went after John. When Zachariah refused to talk, they murdered him in the temple, “killed between the altar and the sanctuary”. Luke 11:51 Tradition says Elizabeth took John and fled to the wilderness down by the Jordan. Did she perhaps take refuge with family till her death? We don’t know. Nor do we know anything about John. Those who like exotic speculations wonder if maybe he was part of the semi-monastic Qumran Community nearby. I’ve even read that he went to India and learned Buddhist lore. (I don’t think so.) What we do know is what happened when John was about thirty years old.

John appears by the Jordan 

“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LordMake His paths straight!’’ Matthew 3:1

John came preaching like aprophet, looking like a prophet, “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist”. He even came eating like a prophet: “his food was locusts and wild honey.” Locusts? Ugh. (Some say the text really means carobs, “locust beans”. I would prefer that personally, but then I’m not a prophet.) “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” Matthew 3:1-6

Why did they flock to him? Because people were looking for the Prophet, for Elijah, the one who would precede the Messiah. Judaea was an occupied country. People wanted a “true King” who would come and set them free. And indeed they got One – but not the one they wanted. 

Now Jesus came to the Jordan. John cried “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world.” Then, of all things, Jesus asked John to baptize Him. John was shocked. No! “It is you who should baptize me”. Jesus said “Let it be so for now. It is the right thing to do”.

And so Jesus took John’s Baptism and remade it into our Baptism, our new birth into the Kingdom of God, our entrance into eternal life. 

John now withdrew into the background. He said he was only the bridegroom’s friend, the “best man” as we would say, the koumbaro/ κουμπάρo in Greek terms. John said “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for Him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.”John 3:29

John’s death

However, some while later John’s prophetic voice kicked in again. King Herod had stolen his brother’s wife. John publicly chastized him. Herod threw him into prison, and there he languished – and began to have doubts about Jesus. (Confinement can have strange effects on people.) I have read that John could not possibly have doubted his Cousin. I would like to ask Why not? Was John human or not? All human beings have doubts.

John had expected the Messiah to lay “the axe” to the root of the trees: therefore every tree which brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” Matthew 3:10 Jesus was not doing it. So he sent disciples to ask Him, ‘Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.’” Matthew 11:5 Christ was fulfilled the prophecies. But the prophecies John hoped for would have to wait till His Second Coming.

After they departed Jesus said to the multitudes, “This is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.’ Truly, 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.'”  Matthew 11 

And so on every Orthodox iconostasis there are our Lord Jesus Christ, his Blessed Mother the Theotokos, and John the Baptist and Forerunner, inclining or pointing towards Jesus, preparing His way. 

                                                                                                                           

Now, Herod’s wife wanted John dead. Herod wouldn’t do it. He would go to the prison and listen to John, though he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Some people want to hear the truth but somehow just can’t take it in. So here comes the most gruesome of stories: Herod threw himself a birthday party perhaps at this, his western palace (In the old days only royalty celebrated birthdays.) He invited all his rich friends in. Herod’s wife’s daughter danced delightfully, and Herod (no doubt drunk) said to her: Whatever you ask of me  I will give you. She went to her mother: “What should I ask?” She answered “The head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Herod didn’t want to embarrass himself in front his guests. (There is a moral here about pride, but let’s not go there now.) So John was beheaded, and they brought his head into the party on a platter.

And that was the tragic end of John the Baptist.

Or was it?

John after his Death

Listen to the Church’s Troparion/Apolytikion for John the Baptist: “The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner. You were shown in truth to be the most honorable of the prophets, for you were deemed worthy to baptize in the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold. Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy,  you proclaimed to those in hades the God who appeared in the flesh, who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

 

It was John’s calling to precede Jesus, to proclaim His coming not only on earth but also in hades, in life and also in death. Hear him crying out in the darkness to the dead from all times: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight”. And so Christ would follow him into hades.

But then… Look at this Pascha icon. Now it was time for Christ to precede John. Now Christ becomes the Forerunner. Jesus Christ breaks down the gates and bars of hades and leads the dead up into Life, into the Light. And look to His right. It’s John the Baptist! still pointing to his Lord.

But today all that is thirty years in the future. Today John is still a little baby, snuggling in the arms of Elizabeth, being doted over by his father Zachariah, with all the relatives and friends coming in to see this tiny Gift of God.

For today: Happy Birthday, John the Baptist!

Next Week: Apostolic

Week after next: Opening Up 

9 thoughts on “203. Happy Birthday, John the Baptist!

    1. I didn’t know that. And there are still some people in America who go by the name of “Baptists”. That’s a whole different thing. But adult Baptism (John the Baptist style) seems to be the one thing they all agree on.

      1. Interesting that John the Baptist had many disciples in Samaria, where they buried his body in Sebaste. It was in Samaria where his disciples were called “Baptists”, 2000 years ago. Isn’t it strange that Joanna, wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, refused to tell John’s disciples where she had reburied John’s head on the Mount of Olives, preventing them from returning his head to his body in Sebaste? Surely she must have told Jesus where it was, because she was his devoted disciple.

  1. I’ve been reading up about John the Baptist, after being quite startled by some Biblical researchers. They pointed out that the odd discrepancies between the Nativity stories of Matthew & Luke are because the only actual source for the whole Nativity story of the “Virgin Birth” comes from Mary. The Gospel writers and Apostles only knew Christ as an adult, when Joseph was long gone, along with all others connected with the Nativity story except Mary.

    What’s even stranger is that some researchers suggest that Elizabeth wife of Zechariah is the true mother of twin sons Jesus & John the Baptist: born in September, both died at Passover a year apart. God in His wisdom sent not one, but Two Redeemers, knowing that the forces of evil would do everything in their power to stop them. Mary was newly ejected from her privileged role in the Temple, where she had lived as a “consecrated child” from the age of 3 years, until she reached puberty and was given by her Temple guardian Zechariah to the elderly Joseph to marry. Longing for the attention and special status she had enjoyed for so many years, as soon as Mary heard about Elizabeth’s six-month pregnancy with a “holy child”, she rushed to play midwife, deceived and drugged Elizabeth in childbirth, who didn’t know she had borne two boys, one of whom was smuggled away by Mary and presented to the world as her own “holy child” from a “virgin birth”. Ein Karem is only 7 miles from Bethlehem— very easy to smuggle a child, and at Ein Karem there is still a rock-cut niche, with a stone cover to muffle a baby’s cries, where they say Elizabeth hid Baby John from Herod’s soldiers, before fleeing with him into the wilderness. This niche was also used by Mary to hide Baby Jesus from His Mother Elizabeth.

    This means that millions of Catholics all around the world have been worshipping an Impostor who stole Baby Jesus from his real mother Elizabeth. We know that after Zechariah sent Elizabeth & Baby John the Baptist into the desert to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, Zechariah was murdered by Herod’s soldiers near the altar of the temple, as Jesus Himself mentions in the New Testament, for refusing to tell them where he had sent his wife & baby son. And after his mother died, John the Baptist was condemned to a life of hardship and suffering, raised as an orphan by the Essenes.

    I know it all sounds very shocking & bizarre, but there are a lot of strange things about the relationship between Jesus & John the Baptist, who humbly gave away his disciples, telling them to go to Jesus, but did not go himself, and even had doubts while in prison, probably wondering why the Messiah of God didn’t rescue him, as some apostles like Peter & Paul were miraculously rescued by angels from prison later. After John baptized Jesus, he never saw Jesus again, except from a distance. Another researcher pointed out that John the Baptist was the first Christian martyr, but is completely ignored, while that honour is given to St. Steven as “the first Christian martyr”.

    Some point out that Zechariah “was told” those things, though we must remember that the only source for the whole story of Zechariah & Elizabeth comes from Mary, telling it to Luke, since it is mentioned nowhere else in any other gospel. Another disturbing thing pointed out by biblical scholars is that Luke leaves out John baptizing Jesus, and says John was thrown into prison before Jesus “was baptized with other people”, never mentioning John, and omits the evil Herodias & her dancing daughter Salome demanding John’s head on a plate, just saying Herod beheaded John. It’s as if the Impostor Mary duped Luke, manipulating his honest narrative. And Jesus was just a helpless baby, born fully human to experience all our joys and sorrows, but bearing the divine soul of the Son of God within Him, like His Twin Brother John the Baptist, from whom He was cruelly separated at birth. And both the Twin Redeemers gradually came to realize their full power and mission as they grew up. We are blessed indeed, for by the blood and sacrifice and suffering of God’s Twin Sons, we are Twice Redeemed.

    1. Dear Protestant:

      In reply to both your posts: Well, um…let me see…

      I’m sure you know that is possible to take any set of historical facts and fit them together in a multitude of different ways to “demonstrate” a multitude of different things. I remember a popular book in the 1960s, “Chariots of the Gods” which proved that civilizations of the ancient past were given to earthlings by aliens from outer space. Or early 20th century Biblical criticism which suggested that the New Testament stories which your speculations are based on were in fact invented by the Apostles. And if the Mother of God was lying not only about Jesus’ birth, why wasn’t she just making up the entire story? Or what if Jesus, with all his miraculous powers, was Himself a space alien? Why not? Mind you, I’m not endorsing these things!

      The only safe way is to hang onto the Church’s ancient understanding of these things, the Tradition which has been passed down in the Church from the beginning. When I was in Protestant seminary long ago, I heard much speculation about the Scriptures. One professor “disproved” almost everything. Just before Palm Sunday he explained to us that Palm Sunday never happened! I finally decided that if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t get it right, chances were very slim that my professor 20 centuries later in an entirely different culture would figure it out.

      But what was the correct understanding? That’s when I turned to the Scriptural account itself, understood in light of the Church’s ancient Tradition.

      Father Bill

      1. Well, Reverend, thank you very much for taking time to read my post and give such a thoughtful, good-humoured reply. I was expecting you to either delete my comments and not respond, or else to say “Get off my blog, heretic!” 🙂

        I just hope that Christians will think about two things:

        1) The glaring discrepancies between the Nativity stories in Luke & Matthew (one says Jesus was born in his parents’ house in Bethlehem, the other says it was a stable and they came from Nazareth; one says Three Wise Men, the other says nothing about it; one says Herod was trying to kill them, the other says Baby Jesus was presented at the temple to be circumcised as normal; one says they fled to Egypt, the other omits it completely, etc.)

        2) The only source for the Nativity stories was Mary, telling it to Luke & Matthew, because the Apostles only met Jesus when he was 30 years old, everyone else connected with Christ’s birth had long passed away by the time the gospels were written, and Christ had ascended. One day Christians will come to realize that the only part of the Nativity story that is true is where Mary rushes off to visit Elizabeth upon hearing from Zechariah that his wife is miraculously six months pregnant with a “holy child”. Our Heavenly Father Yahweh chose Elizabeth, not Mary, to be the mother of His Twin Redeemer Sons Jesus & John the Baptist.

        At any rate, thank you for taking time to read my posts, although it’s a pity one was deleted, because I was asking a legitimate question: Why didn’t Joanna tell Jesus and his apostles and John’s disciples where she had buried John’s head? It is very odd.

        1. Forgive me. I inadvertantly deleted one of your comments. Let me know if it doesn’t appear. And forgive me again for saying this bluntly, but I think you think too much!

          Here is my simple solution to most of your problems: See “Father Bill’s Blog Post 227. Magicians from the East”.

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