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Behold, the Herald of Repentance…

There are three feast days in the Orthodox Calendar dedicated to conception. One is the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25. This is when Archangel Gabriel appeared before the Virgin Mary and announced to Her that she was to give birth to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Another is the Conception of the Theotokos, celebrated on December 9. The third, is the Conception of John the Baptist, celebrated on September 23. 
 
Anna, who was Mary’s mother, and Elizabeth, John’s mother, were barren and advanced in age. Yet, the things which are impossible with men are possible with God (Lk 18:27). The Lord miraculously opened their wombs, enabling them to effect an offspring. The Theotokos conceived without seed. She is Ever-Virgin, never having any carnal relations. 
 
Jesus was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Anna and Elizabeth had marital relations, conceiving with seed. Nevertheless, the celebration of these three feast days upholds the belief that life begins at conception.
 
The Conception of the Baptist occurred six months before the Annunciation. So it was, that he [Zacharias] was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood (Lk 1:8).
 
According to the narrative in Luke, Zacharias was serving as a priest in his allotted time in the Temple. Suddenly, Archangel Gabriel appeared to him and told Zacharias that his wife, Elizabeth, was to beget a son. As the holy priest and Prophet, went in holiness to the Holy of Holies, a holy Angel stood by him, as it is written, and addressed him saying: Your prayer has been heard, and now Elizabeth’s barrenness is being abolished, and she will give birth for you, old man, to a son, John the Forerunner, lamp of Elias, Prophet of the Most High and voice of the Word who dawned from a Virgin, Child of God (Aposticha of Festal Vespers). 
 
The coming of the Forerunner was foretold by the Prophets: Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. (Malachi 3:1) The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the paths of our God (Isaiah 40:3).”
 
Yet, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias in the altar, Zacharias doubted the Archangel: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years" (Lk 1:18). For this, Zacharias was muted until the 8th day after John was born. So it was on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.” But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” So they made signs to his father- what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God (ibid: 59-64).
 
Although Zacharias was both a prophet and a priest, he doubted the Archangel. Likewise, the Virgin Mary also questioned the Archangel: then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.. (ibid:34-35)”
 
One may wonder why Zacharias was muted for his disbelief and Mary wasn’t? Only God knows the answer of course, but one could assume that because Zacharias was both a prophet and a priest, more was expected of him. Mary, on the other hand, was a young maiden only fifteen years old. Perhaps Luke 12:48 can be a possible explanation: for everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.
 
John the Baptist prepared the Coming of the Lord by preaching repentance. Today, John the Forerunner burgeoned in barren loins, as the fruit of prayer. Rejoice, O wilderness! And dance, O humanity! Behold, the herald of repentance begins to take flesh in his mother's womb. As we celebrate his glorious conception, O fans of the Church's feasts, come, let us join the chorus and sing to him, "As you are greater than all who were born of women, cease not to intercede for us who faithfully honor your God-given conception, that we may obtain the forgiveness of our sins and the great mercy (Doxastikon of Festal Vespers). 
 
It is important to note that the two most significant human beings were the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The former bore the Logos in Her womb. It is from Her that Christ obtains His humanity. The latter is the greatest born of women; he is the one who preached the Coming of Christ. He is also the one who baptized Him in the River Jordan and bore witness that He is the Messiah. 
 
In the Deesis Icon, found at Άγια Σοφία in Constantinople, Christ, the Pantocrator, is flanked by His Mother to His right and John the Baptist to His left. Deesis comes from the word δέησις which means supplication or intercession. In this icon, both the Theotokos and the Forerunner are humbly supplicating before the Lord on behalf of humanity. The iconostasis which separates the nave from the altar, always contains the icon of Christ to the immediate left of the Royal Doors. An icon of the Forerunner is to His left and on the immediate right of the Royal Doors, is the icon of the Theotokos. The Church celebrates the conception of the aforementioned three as a prelude to salvation. 
 
Sing now, O barren one who did not bear before, for you have indeed conceived the burning lamp of the Sun; and he will illuminate all the world afflicted with spiritual blindness. Dance, O Zacharias, and now openly cry out: "The one who is to be born is a Prophet of the Most High God" (Festal Apolytikion).
 

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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