Today we commemorate the wondrous Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist of our Lord Jesus Christ, John, son of the righteous High Priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth. Who is this prophet, who is called “more than a prophet” by the Christ Himself? Who is this man, who is called “the greatest of those born of women” by the God-Man Himself? Who is this saint, who is a saint of saints, whose memory the Church honors several times a year, including today, his nativity, his beheading, and the three findings of his most-precious head? He is called by the Church an “angel in the flesh,” as it is written in Holy Scripture in the book of Malachi, “I shall send My messenger [that is: angelos, angel] and he shall prepare the way before Me.” Who is this man? This rugged man who dwelt in solitary places of the desert, fed on wild food, wore a hair shirt and is the exemplar, prototype and model of the Church’s numerous holy ascetics and hesychasts? Who is this man who—though he worked no miracle in his lifetime—possessed such great virtue, purity and authority that many thought him to be the very Christ? Who is this man whose disciples honored him more than Christ until he definitively revealed it to them that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the One Who is from heaven; while deeming himself as one who is from earth?
It is told in the Gospel that—while John was in prison—he sent his disciples to Christ to ask if He was the One Who was to come, the Christ, or if they should wait for another. The most-perceptive and Spirit-filled interpreters of the Church teach us that John asked this of Christ to teach his disciples that Jesus was the Christ. They all point out that John could not have had doubts whether Jesus was the Christ, that is, the Anointed, or not. They ask, “how could he who saw the Holy Spirit descend from the Father upon Jesus and anoint Him with Himself in the Jordan; how could he who heard the voice of the Father testify that this indeed is “His beloved Son in Whom He is well pleased”; how could this John doubt that this was the Christ? For even before he saw and heard these things, he pointed Christ out as “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” that is, He Who has come to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the suffering Messiah-Savior. Likewise, John perceived Christ’s sinlessness before he baptized Him, confessing that he needed to rather be baptized by Jesus.
This John is glorious and honorable, pure, holy, righteous and filled with all manner of virtue. He came in the spirit of Elias. In one sense he was not Elias; in another, he was. When asked by the multitude if he was Elias, he denied it. “However,” Christ said to His disciples in private, “if you are able to receive it, this is Elias who is to come.” The meaning of this seeming discrepancy is this. The last Old Testament prophet before St. John the Baptist, Malachi, says in his very last verses: “Behold, I will send you Elias the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children.”
Elias, who has not yet tasted death, on account of his fiery ascent into heaven, is understood by the Church to be one of the two witnesses which are spoken about in Revelation, along with Enoch who also has not yet died. They will come back before the Second Coming of Christ to preach of Christ. They will work mighty miracles and show wondrous signs. Many Jews will come to Christ. Then these two will be slain by Antichrist and all the world will see. But they will resurrect, and the Lord will take them to Himself again. Therefore, not in person, but in spirit—not in identity, but in similarity—John is Elias, who has come to prepare the way—not of the Second Coming of Christ, but—of the Lord’s First Coming.
Elias and John have always been glorified by the Church as the first ascetics and monastics—not the first cenobitic monks, but the first solitary monks: Perfect examples for those who are deemed worthy to wear and enter into the mystery which is given by the Church to few—the Great Angelic Schema.
St. Anthony the Great was likened to Elias and John the Baptist. And he in turn, after he visited Paul the Hermit of Thebes, came back and told his brethren that he had seen Elias and John in the desert. These men became lights to the world. After spending much time in solitude, prayer, fasting, vigil, chastity and virtue, they were revealed to others, and disciples flocked to them. Elias had Elisseus and others; John had the Holy Apostle Andrew and others; and Anthony had Ammon, Macarius and others who gathered around him to be guided to Christ. And here is the essence of their life—Christ! If John is seen as an exemplar and founder of the monastic life, then it must be that he has left us, in a certain way, a monastic typicon, a rule of life, so to say. What is the rule he has given us? “He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease!” What profound spiritual life is contained within these simple words! What humility is shown! What selflessness is revealed! What wisdom and knowledge shine forth: “Christ must increase, but I must decrease!” If we meditated on these words all day long and penetrated their inner meaning and lived them out with every breath, we would need nothing more to be saved. But let us add to it the rule of the Church’s other prototype of monastics, of virgins, the Most Holy Virgin-Mother of God: “Let it be done unto me according to thy word!”
These words of humility, obedience, love and submission of will, and the seeking of nothing but the glory of God; these words have come from the greatest and most holy and virtuous people of all time. These two, the Mother of God and the Baptist of the Lord, the Church has revealed to be the ones to whom the right hand and left hand of Christ’s throne are given; those places which the sons of thunder desired. This is depicted in every Church, and is seen above me—where the Virgin and the Baptist stand closest to Christ, then come the two Archangels, then the two Chief Apostles. If they are so glorious, how much more glorious is Christ? If they are so obedient and humble, how much more so is Christ?
John pointed the way to Christ. He is the Lord’s Forerunner in every respect. John is the greatest man of those born of women, yet he had a beginning; but Christ, Who has always existed as One of the Holy Trinity, was born of a woman and came into this world as the only God-Man! John is the voice; Christ—the Word. John is a bright and shining lamp; Christ—the noetic Sun of Righteousness. John’s birth was preceded by an angel; Christ’s birth was preceded by the glad tidings of that same Archangel Gabriel. John was miraculously conceived of a barren womb; but Christ was conceived of a virginal womb. John was born of human seed; but Christ was born of the divine seed of the Father by the action of the Holy Spirit. John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb; but Christ is co-eternal, co-equal and co-reigning with that very same Holy Spirit of the Father since from before the ages. John grew up in obscurity; and the Humble Master, the same Who is the All-Worshipful King of the angels, grew up also in obscurity for thiry years.
After righteous Elizabeth’s death—which came shortly after she took the infant John and fled into the desert to save him from Herod’s mass murder of all the infants—John was nourished and raised by angels; but Christ, though He was reared and nurtured by His Most Pure Mother and His supposed father St. Joseph, was always in the bosom of the Father.
John was an angel in the flesh; but Christ is God-come-in-the-flesh. John was an angel in the flesh, not by nature, but by disposition, manner of life and wisdom; but Christ is the Son of God, One of the Holy Trinity, God by nature, and now also forever Man by nature—One Person in two unconfused and indivisible natures! John dwelt in the desert and afterwards many disciples gathered around him; Christ also dwelt in the desert and was followed by His Holy Apostles and Disciples afterwards. John taught with an authority born of spotless purity and holiness of life; but Christ taught with the authority of God Himself, as He alone Who knows the Father, He alone Who has seen the Father, and He alone Who has heard Him! John’s death was caused by his admirer, Herod; Christ’s death was caused by one of His intimates, Judas. John was imprisoned; so was Christ. John was fearless before men and rebuked every vice without any tinge of man-pleasing, and thus his holy and honorable head was chopped off in a most dishonorable manner; Christ, the Truth-Incarnate suffered at the hands of the envious and crazed Jews the most excruciating and most dishonorable death of crucifixion.
The soul of John, after his death, descended into hades as the rest of the Old Testament righteous ones, and he came preaching that Christ has come to deliver those who have waited for Him for hundreds and thousands of years in gloomy hades. When Adam turned from God, he truly died—first in soul, then in body. After his body died, his soul was still dead, and thus he languished in the darkness, gloom, and shadow of spiritual death, separation from God his Life. Every other man before Christ’s death and resurrection suffered the same as our father Adam. Yet, the righteous were consoled—so the Church teaches—by their hope in the coming of the Christ Who would deliver them from death and raise them up at the last day. The prophets spoke about this. St. Paul preached this and testified to his Jewish brethren that he was suffering as an evil-doer unjustly, only because he preaches the hope of Israel, the Christ, Who has risen from the dead, destroyed death, and will thus resurrect all the dead.
We cannot penetrate into this mystery of hades. However, we can come to a faint understanding of it in this way: remember a time in your life when you were in the most bitter trials of soul, the greatest spiritual affliction you ever endured. Try to recall the hopelessness, the despair, the spiritual suffocation, the taste of death, living hades. Many of us—who were either not raised with belief in Christ, or who turned our back on Christ in a rebellious manner of life—can remember a time such as this. We can recall its bitterness, its darkness, its hopeless feeling of separation from God.
Yet, although we live in Christ, and are trying to live in Christ, we may yet have to experience many such similar trials. However, when it pleases God, even amidst these most trying agonies, we will be granted the consolation that—with the Psalmist—“we shall not die but live, and tell of the works of the Lord!” We are granted the consolation that we will once again arise—by the great and miraculous power of God’s love and grace—into a spiritually radiant and joy-filled life. When this joy comes, all the sorrow passes. And if we again fall into gloomy trials, once again we can yet hope in our spiritual resurrection. Christ says that when the new man which is birthed within us by the renewing power of the Holy Spirit comes to life, all the former sorrow of our previous afflictions are swallowed up in joy and we remember none of them—even as when a mother is in travail and sorrow and pain while she is giving birth to a new man; when the new man comes forth, and she holds her babe with tears of joy and is delivered of her pain and remembers it no more and is only aware of the over-abounding joy of her newborn babe—so it is with us! And so it was at the time that Christ descended to the spirits in prison, as St. Peter says.
After John was martyred, his soul went to preach the imminent coming of Christ to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Isaiah and all those who were awaiting their Savior in the gloomy dungeons of hades. After Christ’s life-giving and saving Crucifixion and death, His all-pure soul inseparably united to His divinity came to those prisoners who were awaiting Him. He took them all by the hand, and led them up to ancient Paradise. How great must have been their rejoicing at this time! But He did even more—He resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father—not for Himself, but for us; not in His divinity, but in His divine-humanity. He sat all of fallen Adam, all mankind, in His own flesh, upon that divine throne. O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory? O ancient prisoners, where is thy former darkness and age-long gloom? Christ is risen and has raised us up with Himself!
Since that time, the New Jerusalem, the Mother of us all, the Kingdom of heaven, has given birth to numerous children, and she is awaiting the time when all her sons shall be raised up by Christ and perfected by Him in order to receive her in her fullness, when the fulness of the Kingdom of Christ our King and Savior and God will come, after His Second Coming when He will transform the heavens and the earth, raise up all mankind, judge the living and the death, and separate the sheep from the goats.
May we, at that time, through the intercessions of His most pure Mother, of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John, and of all His angels and saints, be found worthy to enter into His eternal Kingdom. This is our hope in affliction; this is our faith which transcends this fallen world of pain and sickness and death; this is the great burning love of our spiritual yearning which fixes our whole mind and soul and body upon the true life which is to come.
This is the fullness of life which we receive but a foretaste and pledge of in the divine and holy Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood which we are about to partake of. May we not spill His grace; may we not blaspheme His name by a dishonorable and ungrateful life; may we not disdain our great King and Benefactor. Let us say with St. John, with all our soul: “O God, our Father, increase Thy Christ within us by the grace of Thine All-Holy-Spirit, that there may be nothing but Christ in us, willing in us, acting in us, praying in us, and living in us unto the ages of ages unto the glory of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.