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The Nativity of John the Baptist

There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:7-8).
 
John the Baptist is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, being a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He is the greatest man born of woman and the Forerunner of Christ whose coming was spoken about in the Prophets: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me, and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come into His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, whom you desire. Behold, He is coming” says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3:1). 
 
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the paths of our God. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill humbled; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places into plains. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God; for the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:3-4). 
 
The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned (ibid 9:1-2).
 
When the Jews heard about John the Baptist, they thought that Elijah had returned. Even Jesus when speaking to His Disciples paralleled Elijah with the Baptist: “Indeed Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He spoke of John the Baptist (Mt 17:11-13). 
 
John’s strong correlation with Elijah was due to his asceticism. Both lived in the wilderness and ate the most primitive of foods. They both lived celibate lives of chastity and purity. Furthermore, they both were obedient to God and carried out His will. John’s ascetic life conformed to that of the Jewish sect called the Essenes. Their purpose was to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. One such way to obtain purity was by baptism. 
 
John baptized people in the Jordan River. When Jesus appeared to John to be baptized, the latter said: “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed Him (Mt 3:13). It was with his right hand that he baptized Jesus which is why the relic of this hand is so sacred. John also bore witness to the Holy Trinity as he baptized Jesus. 
 
In the Gospel of John, the Baptist confessed: Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). It was the two disciples of the Baptist, Simon Peter and Andrew who became Christ’s first Apostles. Once Jesus began His earthly ministry, John’s ministry was complete. For John said: He must increase, but I must decrease (Jn 3:30).
 
John was born on June 24, a few days after the Summer Solstice, when the days start to get shorter. Conversely, Jesus was born on December 25 which is a few days after the Winter Solstice, when the days start to get longer. This certainly is no coincidence but rather God’s intention. John expressed great humility and took the focus away from himself and instead directed it toward the Savior. It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loosen (Jn 1:27). The sole purpose of John’s ministry was to lead the people to Jesus and bear witness that He is the Christ, the Lamb of God. 
 
From the womb, the Baptist rejoiced in being in the presence of Christ who was in the Womb of the Virgin Mary. As we hear in the Gospel reading at every Small Paraklesis to the Theotokos: And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in  her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb (Lk 1:41-42).
 
The Baptist is prophesizing of the presence of Christ by leaping in the womb of Elizabeth. It is a leap of joy, bearing witness to Christ who is soon to begin His earthly life. It would be about thirty years later when John would finally meet Jesus in person and baptize Him.  
 
What is significant about the Nativity of the Baptist is the fulfillment of the words of the Archangel Gabriel: Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John (ibid, 13).
 
Yet, with doubt, Zacharias responded: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not be able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time (ibid, 18-20).” 
 
It was not until John’s circumcision when Zacharias’ mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God (ibid, 64). The Archangel rebuked Zacharias for his doubt
because he was a high priest and should have had more faith. Even though his wife Elizabeth was advanced in years and barren, Zacharias still should have been believing, knowing with God nothing will be impossible (Lk 1:37). His inability to speak was only temporarily, until the fulfillment of the Archangel’s announcement. 
 
After the birth of John, Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesized, saying: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation, for us in the house of His servant David…(ibid, 67-68) The rest of this prayer is known as Zacharias’ Song: The Benedictus. It is a prophetic hymn of praise to God.
 
God chastises us not as a means of retaliation but rather to help us. He wants us to have μετανόηση, “a change of mind” so that we may reconcile with Him and one day enter His Heavenly Kingdom. 
 
Today, the Voice of the Logos releases his father's voice, which had been restrained because of disbelief. And he breaks his mother's bonds of barrenness, and thus indicates that the Church will have many children. The lamp of the Light comes forth, the dawn announces the coming of the Sun of righteousness, for the re-formation of all and the salvation of our souls (Sticheron of Festal Vespers).
 
O, Forerunner, intercede for us all!
 

-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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