We approach the feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner of Christ – a feast noted around my household for also being the birthday of my wife (and of her brother). Thus we celebrate and are sometimes slightly distracted from the ecclesiatical meaning of the day. But a family cannot be faulted for the joy it takes in its mother, nor I in my spouse. But I want to turn my thoughts today to the Forerunner of Christ before our family calendar overtakes the day itself.
St. John has always been a fascinating figure – perhaps among the most unforgettable encounters and events in all of the Gospels. St. John’s gospel is content to make no mention of our Lord’s birth, beginning instead with His pre-existence. St. Mark’s Gospel is equally silent on matters of Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. Sts. Matthew and Luke are our only witnesses for the feast of Christmas. St. John makes no direct mention of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper (though his sixth chapter’s discourse following the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is by far the most complete exposition of the meaning of the Eucharist despite its being given before the unmentioned event occurs). St. John is also the only witness we have for the Lord’s merciful treatment of the woman taken into adultery, and many liberal scholars want to take even that away.
Nevertheless, Evangelists who show an ability to diverge in their accounts of our Lord’s life and ministry to the consternation of fundamentalists and the confounding of the faithless, nevertheless rally with an amazing agreement when it comes to the figure of the Baptist. St. Mark opens his Gospel with the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Needless to say his ministry also marks the beginning of the adult ministry of Jesus in both St. Matthew and St. Luke, the latter including stories of the birth of the Baptist as well as that of Christ. It is in this marvelous context that the Mother of God offers the Magnificat, St. John himself leaping as a babe in the womb at the very sound of the Virgin Mary’s voice.
The Baptism of Christ is universally presented as the inauguration of His ministry and John is clearly indicated as a witness of this event. He sees the Spirit descending like a dove. There is also another aspect of Christ’s encounter with John, only noted in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and that is the questioning of John. Is Jesus the one or should he look for another? What had seemed to be settled was still a matter unsettling in the heart of John. Christ’s answer is to cite one of the great messianic prophecies and to note that it is fulfilled in his ministry. Thus, we are to understand, John’s doubts are settled.
In Church tradition, John continues his role as forerunner. He is martyred sometime before the crucifixion of Christ and thus enters Hades with the same message, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”Not only does he prepare Hades for the reception of Christ, but clearly he had prepared some of the disciples for the reception of Christ as Messiah.
I would urge the Orthodox to listen to the hymns of his feast for theological content of his ministry. This is a man whom the New Testament does not see as a minor player, but in every gospel, finds essential to the work of Christ. There is no ministry of Christ without him, just as there is no birth of Christ without the Theotokos. Little wonder that many iconostases always include his icon as a matter of course (not all Orthodox traditions do this). I am very fond of our icon of the Forerunner, and am even aware of a few minor miracles associated with it. Happy feast to all.