John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord

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We approach the feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner of Christ – a feast noted around my household for also being the birthday of my wife (and of her brother). Thus we celebrate and are sometimes slightly distracted from the ecclesiatical meaning of the day. But a family cannot be faulted for the joy it takes in its mother, nor I in my spouse. But I want to turn my thoughts today to the Forerunner of Christ before our family calendar overtakes the day itself.

St. John has always been a fascinating figure – perhaps among the most unforgettable encounters and events in all of the Gospels. St. John’s gospel is content to make no mention of our Lord’s birth, beginning instead with His pre-existence. St. Mark’s Gospel is equally silent on matters of Bethlehem, Egypt and Nazareth. Sts. Matthew and Luke are our only witnesses for the feast of Christmas. St. John makes no direct mention of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper (though his sixth chapter’s discourse following the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is by far the most complete exposition of the meaning of the Eucharist despite its being given before the unmentioned event occurs). St. John is also the only witness we have for the Lord’s merciful treatment of the woman taken into adultery, and many liberal scholars want to take even that away.

Nevertheless, Evangelists who show an ability to diverge in their accounts of our Lord’s life and ministry to the consternation of fundamentalists and the confounding of the faithless, nevertheless rally with an amazing agreement when it comes to the figure of the Baptist. St. Mark opens his Gospel with the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Needless to say his ministry also marks the beginning of the adult ministry of Jesus in both St. Matthew and St. Luke, the latter including stories of the birth of the Baptist as well as that of Christ. It is in this marvelous context that the Mother of God offers the Magnificat, St. John himself leaping as a babe in the womb at the very sound of the Virgin Mary’s voice.

The Baptism of Christ is universally presented as the inauguration of His ministry and John is clearly indicated as a witness of this event. He sees the Spirit descending like a dove. There is also another aspect of Christ’s encounter with John, only noted in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and that is the questioning of John. Is Jesus the one or should he look for another? What had seemed to be settled was still a matter unsettling in the heart of John. Christ’s answer is to cite one of the great messianic prophecies and to note that it is fulfilled in his ministry. Thus, we are to understand, John’s doubts are settled.

In Church tradition, John continues his role as forerunner. He is martyred sometime before the crucifixion of Christ and thus enters Hades with the same message, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.”Not only does he prepare Hades for the reception of Christ, but clearly he had prepared some of the disciples for the reception of Christ as Messiah.

I would urge the Orthodox to listen to the hymns of his feast for theological content of his ministry. This is a man whom the New Testament does not see as a minor player, but in every gospel, finds essential to the work of Christ. There is no ministry of Christ without him, just as there is no birth of Christ without the Theotokos. Little wonder that many iconostases always include his icon as a matter of course (not all Orthodox traditions do this). I am very fond of our icon of the Forerunner, and am even aware of a few minor miracles associated with it. Happy feast to all.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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8 responses to “John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord”

  1. Death Bredon Avatar

    Another example of why I love your blog!

    Sometime,s I think that the Forerunner is the most underrated figure in the Communion of the Saints in the actual practice of Orthodox life. Yes, he has his prescribed fast and fast and place on the iconostasis, but somehow he when the Theotokos, gets her justly deserved invocations, John is omitted entirely. So, in my private prayers, I try to invoke the Forerunner immediately after every invocation of the God Bearer, lest we forget the hugely important role John played in Christian Revelation.

  2. Graham Cochenet Avatar
    Graham Cochenet

    Those who favor a literal interpetaion of prophecy are befuddled by John the baptist, who Christ said was the fulfillment of Elijah.

    On the other hand, thos of baptistic persuasion call him “John who was a baptist”

  3. Roland Avatar

    Which Orthodox traditions do not include St. John on the iconostasis? I don’t recall ever seeing an iconostasis from which he was absent.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not sure Roland. You may be right. There are varying rules for the placement of icons, with differences primarily between Greek and Russian. I’d have to research to be sure that there is a scheme in which he is absent.

  5. bastrix Avatar

    Happy birthday for your lady, Father Stephen and may you have strength in our sacerdotal works. We are in prayers for your family and we are learning a deep theology, an experimental theology from your posts.
    The happiness of knowing you is ours.

    Father Dorin,
    Romania,
    Bucharest,
    23 June 2007.

  6. Rdr Joseph Avatar

    Not sure of the scheme, but the iconostasis at St John the Wonder Worker in Atlanta does not have the Forerunner on it. In the usual place is an ancient icon of Seth, the son of Adam.

  7. Matt Avatar

    It never ceases to amaze me how things or people or events which figure prominently in the New Testament narrative yet which seemed weird or out of place in my Protestant days fit so perfectly and sensibly into the life and faith of the Orthodox Church. The Forerunner is a great example of this: I used to be rather befuddled at the amount of ink spent on him in the Gospels. Now I praise God for it!

  8. […] H/T: Glory to God for all Things (here) […]

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…


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