St. John the Baptist is one of the most important saint in the Christianity, known as the Forerunner Our Lord. The most important informations about him and his teachings are to be found in the Holy Gospels. There are also some other traditions and writings, which may be later dated. But an important accout about him comes from the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. According to his report from Antiquities 18.116-19, stated also by Mark 6:17-29; Matt. 14:3-12; Luke 9, 7-11, the Jewish tetrarch Herod Antipas, who was from 4 B.C. until his banishment to Lyon in A.D. 39 a “quarter prince” over Galilee and Perea, had executed John the Baptist at Machaerus, his fortress high in the mountains east of the Dead Sea. This fortress lay at the remote southern end of Perea, on the east side of the Jordan, not so far away from the place called Betabara, opposite to Jericho, commonly known until today as the place “in the desert” where John began his work of baptism “across the Jordan” (John 1:28; 10:40). After this event, all his apprentices either went to Jesus and became His disciples, either went back to their homes.
But why is John the Baptist a prophet and why Jesus called him as “bigger than the prophets and the biggest between the born from women” (Mt. 11,7-9; Lc. 7,24-26) ?
Some informations about the importance of this person, who binds the Old and the New Testament, we can know if we study the episode about his birth, which both the Eastern and Western Churches celebrate on 24th of June, the (approximate) Summer Solstice.
Biblical References about the Event
In the Christian iconography, the Evangelist Luke is symbolized through a lion, and that’s because his Gospel begins with the prophetical text “The voice of the one who cries in the Desert: prepare the way of God…”, the text which is always associated with the ascetical life of St. John in the Desert of Judaea. Matter fact, this text, from Isaiah 40,3-5, comes by Luke only in his third chapter, precisely on 3,4-6. But the echo of John’s speaking is present from the beginning. So, Luke begins his Gospel not with a genealogy, but with the episode about the birth of St. John the Baptist.
In the 1st chapter Luke tells that Zachariah, a priest from the Aaronite generation went to the temple and there he had a vision. An angel (Gabriel, the angel of the good news) came to him and told that he will have a son. Of course, Zachariah was astonished, firstly because of the vision and secondly because of the fact that he was already old, and his wife, Elisabeth, couldn’t have babies. According to the Jewish traditions, the couple without children was considered as cursed by God.
The angel tells about the future of the baby: “Fear not, Zacharias, for thy supplication was heard, and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear a son to thee, and thou shall call his name John, and there shall be joy to thee, and gladness, and many at his birth shall joy, for he shall be great before the Lord, and wine and strong drink he may not drink, and of the Holy Spirit he shall be full, even from his mother's womb; and many of the sons of Israel he shall turn to the Lord their God, and he shall go before Him, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn hearts of fathers unto children, and disobedient ones to the wisdom of righteous ones, to make ready for the Lord, a people prepared.” (Luke 1,13-18)
The story later is well known: Zachariah doesn’t believe such a thing and asks for a sign, so that the Angel tells him, that he won’t be able to speak until the day when he will put to the child his name. After that, the priest gets out from the temple and the people there understand that he have seen something exceptional, because his face was changed and he couldn’t communicate but through the gestures. So Zachariah goes home, and after a while Elisabeth gets pregnant.
In the meantime the same angel goes to Mary and tells her about the future birth of Jesus Christ, “The Son of God” (Luke 1,35). Later Mary goes to her relative, Elisabeth, and there happens a miracle: “And it came to pass, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe did leap in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke out with a loud voice, and said, 'Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1, 41-42). The prophecy of the angel is being reality: John is full of Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, being the first confessor of the divinity of Jesus. Another interpretation of his “leap” in the womb is that, John makes his first reverence in front of the Lord, showing that a prophet is smaller than the Son of God.
After a while, Elisabeth gave birth to the child and the relatives came to see the wonder. The Gospel says that they wanted to name him Zachariah, like his father, but the parents opposed strongly. They chose surprisingly the name John, and then Zachariah could speak again. The name of John, in Hebrew, Johannan, means “God is gracious”: He is Merciful with his people, sending him such a prophet.
After the birth, Zachariah sang a Hymn which is partly a prophecy about the future coming of the Messiah (Luke 1,67-75), and partly about the child John himself: “And thou, child, Prophet of the Highest shall thou be called; For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, To prepare His ways. To give knowledge of salvation to His people in remission of their sins, Through the tender mercies of our God, In which the rising from on high did look upon us, To give light to those sitting in darkness and death-shade, To guide our feet to a way of peace” (Luke 1,76-79).
Already the prophecy of Zachariah tells us the role and the importance of John. He is called for the first time as a prophet of the Highest, the one who goes before the face of the Lord. Those things tell even John about himself: “'I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord, as said Isaiah the prophet. And those sent were of the Pharisees, and they questioned him and said to him, Why, then, dost thou baptize, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet? John answered them, saying, 'I baptize with water, but in midst of you he hath stood whom ye have not known, this one it is who is coming after me, who hath been before me, of whom I am not worthy that I may loose the cord of his sandal.'” (John 1,23-27, Mt. 3,11; Lc. 3,16; cf. Mc. 1,7-8). He is only the one who prepares the people for the coming of the Lord. His baptism is only a symbol of the repentance for the ones who were waiting for Messiah.
Some other things about St. John the Baptist
The Christian tradition says that shortly after the event of his birth, Herod began his persecutions against the children around Jerusalem and Bethlehem and so Elisabeth and the child ran in the desert. In some circumstances Zachariah was killed. Shortly after, Elisabeth dies and John remains alone in the desert, being cared only by God Himself and His angels. So, being about 30 years old, he comes near the river of Jordan and begins his preaching about the shortcoming Kingdom of God.
Some other implications of his baptism and his teaching we will leave for another article concerning the Saint Prophet. Here we will stop only about another thing, and that is the confession made by Jesus about John. That happens in an episode, when John sends to Jesus some of his disciples to ask if he is Messiah, or if they must wait for another. This question is quite strange, after the miraculous events occurred earlier in the river of Jordan (The Epiphany). Anyway, Jesus answers indirectly, showing him the wonders happened: “Having gone on, report to John what ye saw and heard, that blind men do see again, lame do walk, lepers are cleansed, deaf do hear, dead are raised, poor have good news proclaimed; and happy is he whoever may not be stumbled in me” (Luke 7,22-23). Immediately after, Jesus speaks about John: “What have ye gone forth to the wilderness to look on? a reed by the wind shaken? but what have ye gone forth to see? a man in soft garments clothed? lo, they in splendid apparellings, and living in luxury, are in the houses of kings! 'But what have ye gone forth to see? a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and much more than a prophet: this is he concerning whom it hath been written, Lo, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee; for I say to you, a greater prophet, among those born of women, than John the Baptist there is not; but the least in the reign of God is greater than he.' And all the people having heard, and the tax-gatherers, declared God righteous, having been baptized with the baptism of John” (Luke 7,24-29).
In this confession Jesus states clearly, that John is neither a zealote (“reed shaken by the wind”), nor an essenian (“a man in soft clothes”). Even from here we understand that John is not politically engaged. He doesn’t wait for a political Messia, who will free the Jews from the Roman occupation. John is neither an essenian, even if until today some scholars make lots of parallels between his baptism and the ritual bathes from Qumran. Even living in the desert, John is a prophet, in the way that Eliah was. During those time were already a lot of people who believed that John isin fact Eliah who came back in the World. That happened because John was preaching and baptizing at Betabara, the place where, according the tradition, Eliah went to heaven. Jesus says more about John, that he is the greater born among the women, a one who prepares the Ways.
One more thing is to say. St. John the Evangelist mentions in his third chapter, that even Jesus started to baptize, not him directly, but his disciples. So happened that the people around started to question about that and went to John, saying about someone “stealing his practice”. Apparently Jesus took John’s “copyright” without permission. “…And they came unto John, and said to him, 'Rabbi, he who was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou didst testify, lo, this one is baptizing, and all are coming unto him.” But John, being aware of his mission says: “ no man is not able to receive anything, if it may not have been given him from the heaven; ye yourselves do testify to me that I said, I am not the Christ, but, that I am having been sent before him; he who is having the bride is bridegroom, and the friend of the bridegroom, who is standing and hearing him, with joy doth rejoice because of the voice of the bridegroom; this, then, my joy hath been fulfilled. 'Him it behoveth to increase, and me to become less; he who from above is coming is above all; he who is from the earth, from the earth he is, and from the earth he speaketh; he who from the heaven is coming is above all…” (John 3,26-31).
John is aware of his mission. He knows that he is only a man, the one who prepares the way. From the moment of the Theophany, Jesus must increase, and John must become less, because the history of the Salvation is written so. Nothing human can put God in shadow.
The Feast of St. John, between the Christianity and Paganism
There are some opinions that the both Feasts of Natalis Domini and Natalis Iohanni are in fact not the very days of their birth. The Church fixed those dates around the 4th century, in order to overlap two big feasts in the Graeco-Roman pagan calendar, that is Dies Solis (25th December), respectively, Dies Dianae (midsummer), a Feast of the vegetation and fertility. That may be true. In the popular Romanian calendar, the Feast of St. John is known as Sânziana (Sancta Diana), or Drăgaica (from the Slavic root drag, meaning love), a statement that there were mixed two popular traditions, the Roman and the Slavic, both stating the importance of the Middle of the Year. This feast has an important role in prophecing the future of the year and even the future of the members of the comunity. Only the plants collected in that day have the best curative qualities.
There are hundreds of traditions and practices with a clear pagan connotation. But that mustn’t be a scandal for the Christians. The very nature works together with God for our own salvation and Christ had prophets also among the pagan nationalities.