(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate the Nativity of John the Baptist, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
Nativity of John the Baptist
The day on which a saint is usually honored by the Orthodox Church is that day on which he departed the earthly life for the spiritual kingdom of heaven. But exceptions are made to include the date of birth on three significant occasions, only one of which honors the birthday of a saint. First and foremost is the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25, which marks the joyous season known as Christmas, which in turn brings the euphoria known as the Christmas spirit. The second birthday observance is that of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Savior, and the third is reserved for St. John the Baptist, the prefiguration of Jesus Christ.
To the Western sector of Christianity a person’s birthday takes precedence over the so-called name day which honors the saint for whom one has been named. In some sectors of the West and, indeed, in some parts of the Orthodox Church outside of Greece, a “name day” not only occasions little celebration, but is often completely ignored. The classical Greek tradition calls for a celebration, both joyous and solemn, on the day when a person’s namesake is honored with a feast day. So important is this day to both lay and clergy that a birthday is sometimes not even casually observed, and elderly Greeks regard it as a milestone in their approach to eternity.
The importance of St. John the Baptist is understood with observances in his name not only on the exceptional birthday, but on the three discoveries of his relics. St. Paul is considered the mightiest figure in Christianity, but even if his chance encounter with the Messiah on the road to Damascus was of divine design, he did not bear the same close kinship in the holy family as St. John, whose birth was ordained by God and whose eschatological mission was a part of the divine plan to pave the way for the Son of God. There is ample mention of the great St. John the Baptist to be found in the New Testament, indicating the importance of the man who baptized the Son of God.
According to Holy Scripture (Luke 1:5), St. John the Baptist was born on June 24 in the days of King Herod of Judea. He was the son of Zacharias, an elderly priest “of the course of Abijah,” and his wife, Elizabeth, whose fertility had been restored by an act of God calculated to sanctify the birth of a child worthy of becoming the forerunner of Jesus Christ. The parents were of humble stock from the mountain regions of the province of Judah who construed the birth of their John by divine intervention as a clear link between the son of a Hebrew priest and the Son of God.
According to New Testament accounts found in Matthew, Luke and John, the mission of repentance was not a solitary effort of one man as seen by some, but that of John and his disciples who assisted him when he was imprisoned. Like the Savior who was to follow, the presence of St. John was not felt until a scant year or so before Christ began his mission at the age of thirty, at which time the Roman Empire was ruled by the Emperor Tiberius.
John’s public life was not first expressed in any of the urban centers of his day, but in the remote and primitive hillside considered a wilderness even then. He chose to issue his first call for repentance near the River Jordan, an area sparsely inhabited until his voice thundered across reaches that inexorably attracted pilgrims in search of spiritual help in an age of darkness and oppression.He addressed himself to the humblest and soon enough found himself in the presence of masses of people. He spoke to them of the urgency of the need for preparation for the life to come in another kingdom reserved for those whose sins had been cleansed by genuine contrition. In so doing he was preparing for the greatest single act for which he was born, the baptism of Jesus Christ, whom he looked upon as the true Son of God.
The far-reaching effects of John’s messianic preaching were not overlooked by the Messiah in his own mission, which lasted a scant three years. The several saints named John who were to follow the Baptist are in keeping with the extreme popularity of the name so revered that the original has a birthday celebration on the calendar of the Orthodox Church in one of the most pleasant months of the year.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.