There is a unanimous witness in the Christian gospels concerning the place of St. John the Baptist. In the Orthodox world he is generally referred to as the Forerunner. All of the gospels agree that he plays a key role in the coming of the Messiah. It is a role that is largely ignored by most of the Christian world.
The gospels make reference to two Scriptures when they mention St. John. The first is from Malachi 3:
Behold, I send My messenger,
And he will prepare the way before Me.
The second is from Isaiah 40:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough places smooth;
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together;
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Both Scriptures make reference to the fact of the Forerunner. Before the coming of the Christ, God will send a messenger to prepare the way. John is the messenger. It is here that most Christians leave St. John. He is a voice and a messenger – as such he simply becomes part of the furniture in the drama of Christ’s coming.
But why is there a messenger? How does John prepare the way? What is the mystery of the Forerunner?
For me, the question is important. Nothing in the story of our salvation is merely incidental. John does not appear because of the prophecy – the prophecy is spoken because John is coming. The Christian gospel, when rightly understood, has a “seamless” quality. It fits together. What is the seamless role of the Forerunner?
The first aspect of his role in Christ’s coming is its simple historical fact. Though the gospel gives John a minor role within the drama, historically his place was very important. John was clearly more important than Christ at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. John had the general approval of the nation of Israel. Even King Herod who arrested John and ordered his death is said to have “feared” him:
knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly (Mark 6:20).
It is to Herod’s shame that he lacked the character to protect John from the wicked demands of Herodias and Salome. Herod’s greatest fear of Christ was that Jesus was somehow John the Baptist come back from the dead (Matt. 14:2).
In Luke’s gospel, Christ is linked with John even before their birth. They are cousins. John, filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb, leaps with joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. His role as Forerunner has already begun.
It is John himself who offers an insight into the mystery of his role. In the fourth gospel, St. John describes himself as the Friend of the Bridegroom.
‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled (Jn. 3:28-29).
In the other three gospels, Christ speaks of his disciples as “friends of the bridegroom,” and makes a contrast between their joyful lack of fasting and the strict fasting of the Baptist’s followers. But the gospel of John raises the image of the Friend of the Bridegroom to a mystical level.
The Forerunner’s theological action in the gospels is to preside at the mystical Pascha, the union of heaven and earth: Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan. The full force of this event is lost on many Christians. At best, it is seen as an action in which Christ is revealed as Messiah. It’s place in Orthodox liturgical life is in the company of Christmas and Pascha. The three feasts have a common shape and common iconography. Christmas and Theophany (Christ’s Baptism) are revealed as “little Paschas.”
The Baptism of Christ is the death and resurrection of Christ, in a mystical form. It is the meaning given to Christian Baptism. In Orthodox liturgical language, Christ’s enters the waters of the Jordan and “crushes the heads of the dragons who lurked there.” The image of the dragons, drawn from Psalm 74 (73), reveal the waters of Jordan to be a foreshadowing of Hades. Christ’s death is an entrance into Hades and the crushing of the devil and his minions. It is the union of Christ with those who had been held in bondage, and, through that union, their resurrection from the dead. This is the mystical marriage, the union of God with His creation.
The identification of the Forerunner as the Friend of the Bridegroom also points to the Baptism as a mystical marriage. It is the role of the Bridegroom’s friend to witness the marriage. It is also necessary for someone to perform the Baptism itself. John hesitates before such a role and protests that he is unworthy. But Christ, the true Bridegroom, counters, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).
The imagery of Christ as Bridegroom has many echoes within the Old Testament. God as the husband of Israel is the primary image within Hosea; the Song of Songs is incomprehensible without it; Psalm 45 (44) is a rich commentary on the topic. In Orthodoxy, the Bridegroom is a beloved title for Christ. It is a primary theme in the Holy Week as the Church moves towards the spiritual climax of Pascha. Everything begins to be described in wedding imagery.
Come from the vision, O ye women, bearers of glad tidings, and say to Sion: receive from us the glad tidings of the Resurrection of Christ; adorn thyself, exult, and rejoice, O Jerusalem, for thou hast seen Christ the King come forth from the tomb like a bridegroom in procession.
The Church sees beyond the Jordan to an even greater role for the Forerunner. John, beheaded by Herod, enters into Hades and continues there his mission of preparation for Christ. There, in Hades, the man whom Christ describes as “the greatest born among women,” carries on his work of self-emptying. John says of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Just as Christ’s self-emptying carries him into the emptiness of death that he might fill it with Himself, so John enters first into the same emptiness, that he might proclaim the coming Fullness.
He is the Friend of the Bridegroom. How could he not have been present to witness such a victory by his Friend?
August 29 is the feast of the Beheading of St. John. Glory to God!