Pastoral Letter August 26, 2018

“The memory of the just is observed with hymns of praise; for you suffices the testimony of the Lord, O Forerunner. You have proved to be truly more venerable than the Prophets, since you were granted to baptize in the river the One whom they proclaimed. Therefore, when for the truth you had contested, rejoicing, to those in Hades you preached the Gospel, that God was manifested in the flesh, and takes away the sin of the world, and grants to us the great mercy.” — Festal Apolytikion Hymn of St. John the Baptizer and Forerunner of Christ.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We have just celebrated the Leave Taking of the Dormition of the Theotokos. In other words, the liturgical cycle of commemorating her falling asleep and assumption into the heavens is now complete. We, as did the holy Apostles, weep and mourn the earthly loss of the presence of the Mother of God. But we, also like the Apostles, receive joyfully the promise of the Resurrection that she received, that her Son promised, and that John the Baptist preached.

Unlike the peaceful and solemn end of days experienced by the Theotokos, St. John the Forerunner was subject to a vile death, conjured up by the violent rage and envious darkness of human kind’s most wicked devise. While the Lord received the gentile soul of His mother, carried by angels and caressed by His hand, the tragic and most unjust martyrdom of the Baptist is among the most horrific acts of the New Testament Cannon, and the actual, entirety of Church history.

We commemorate his beheading this coming Wednesday. It is a strict fast day. Its is a day of prayer and contemplation. It is a day which lifts up, for sacred consideration, the ministry of he who preached in the wilderness, baptized in the Jordan, called us unto repentance, and gave hope, even to those in Hades, that the salvation of mankind is the will, the desire and the plan of God.

I invite you, therefore, to consider these ten, lovely treatise statements concerning the life, ministry and calling of St. John the Baptist. They are excerpts from the writings of the Russian Orthodox Church in the UK and illustrate plainly and powerfully, why we lift up the Baptist wish such adoration. The eccentric figure that is John the Baptist is unique in character and completely defined by innocence and piety. His life is blessed. His life is tragic. His life is sacrifice. His life is witness. Please read on…

Why does the Church give such veneration to St John the Baptist, even fixing a strict fast day in his honor? Here are ten reasons:

  1. Our Lord Himself said that St John was the greatest prophet ‘among those born of women’ (Luke 7, 28). Some hearing these words are surprised. They ask: Surely, Christ Himself is the greatest man born of women? However, Christ was not born of a woman (i.e. a married female), he was born of a Virgin. Therefore, in obedience to our Lord’s words, that St John is the greatest born of women, the Church duly honors him. In fact, there are no fewer than six feasts of St John in the Church Year. The first is his Conception on 23 September. Then comes his commemoration on 7 January, the day after the Feast of the Baptism of Christ. The third is the Second Finding of his head on 24 February. His next feast is the Third Finding of his head on 25 May. The fifth is his Birth, or Nativity, on 24 June, and finally today’s feast, the last in the Church Year, his Beheading on 29 August.
  2. The parents of St John were great and holy people in their own right and their child was a gift in answer to prayer made to them in their pious old age. His father was St Zachariah, Prophet, Priest and Martyr. His mother, St Elizabeth, was the sister of St Anna, that is the sister of the mother of the Mother of God. This relationship between the Mother of God and her kinsman, St John, is expressed in the icon which hangs over the holy doors in every Orthodox church. This shows Christ in the center, the Mother of God on His right and St John the Baptist on His left. This icon is called the Deisis, and signifies how our salvation is related not only to Our Savior, but also to His Holy Mother and St John.
  3. For this reason St John has the special title of the ‘Forerunner’, in Greek ‘Prodromos’, which in is a common Greek Christian name. St John alone can claim to be the Forerunner of Christ, therefore the pioneer of our Faith. How can we fail therefore to give him special honor?
  4. The Holy Forerunner is also given the title of ‘Prophet’. In fact it can be said that he was the last Prophet of the Old Testament. As you may recall, the last seventeen books of the Old Testament are the Prophetic Books, from St Isaiah to St Malachi. In this way, we can also say that St John is the first Prophet of the New Testament. Thus, St John can be considered as a hinge, joining the Old Testament and the New Testament. We also note that not only was St John the Baptist the first Prophet of the New Testament, but that the last Prophet of the Old Testament was also called John. This was St John the Theologian, who wrote the last book of the New Testament and its only prophetic book, the Book of Revelation.
  5. St John the Baptist, the first Prophet of the New Testament, was also the first Martyr during Christ’s public preaching, some three years before the holy Archdeacon Stephen, who was the First Martyr after Christ’s Ascension. 
  6. It can also be said that St John the Baptist was the first Monk, indeed this is why he is the patron-saint of monks and the monastic life. This is the meaning of the first Gospel today, in which our Lord tells the young man who wishes to follow him, first of all to obey the commandments and then to give up all his riches. That is how St Antony the Great decided to go into the desert, on hearing this very Gospel, so imitating St John the Baptist. We recall the importance of monastic life for the Orthodox Church. Monasticism is the barometer of the Church. When monastic life flourishes, so the whole Church flourishes. When monastic life is weak, then the whole Church is weak. And St John stands at the head of this.
  7. The first step towards monastic life, and indeed towards Christian life in general, is repentance. And this is the first word of St John. Therefore he is great, because he preaches repentance. Repentance is the letter A of the Orthodox Christian alphabet, it is the mark of truth, the mark of sobriety, the absence of exaltation, the sense of reality. Thus, St John’s first disciples, Andrew and Peter, were also the first disciples of Christ. And we should not forget that St John preached repentance not only on earth, but also in Hades. After his beheading, St John went down to Hades, where all departed mankind was held captive, and there preached to all generations, from Adam and Eve on, of Christ’s imminent coming, in less than three years from then.
  8. The first step in monastic life is obedience. This obedience can be seen in St John’s prayer and fasting. He prayed in the desert and ate honey and locusts, dressed in camel-hair. He was ministered to by angels. Thus, in the Church he is called ‘a heavenly man and an earthly angel’. His obedience can be seen in his accepting to baptise the Son of God, Whose shoelaces he, in his own words, was unworthy even to undo.
  9. The second step in monastic life is poverty, not only in terms of having no money, but also in having no power. St John fearlessly denounced power that was abused, that was used to do evil. This is the meaning of today’s second Gospel, the Gospel for St John. This Gospel tells us how St John had denounced Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who had slaughtered the Holy Innocents nearly thirty years before in Bethlehem, who at the time of St John’s preaching was the ruler in Galilee.
  10. Finally, St John was great, because he heralded the third step in monastic life, that of chastity.

If you are at all able, please join us on Wednesday, August 29th for the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Orthros begins at 9:30 am. Followed by the Divine Liturgy at 10:30 am.

Holy Forerunner, Prophet and Baptist John, pray to God for us!