This past Monday, June 25, was the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (transferred from June 24). Did you know that only three birthdays are celebrated as feast days in the Christian liturgical calendar? Obviously, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus (Christmas). But while most Saints are celebrated on the day of their death, or another significant date, only the Feasts of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John the Baptist are observed as birthdays, or nativities. According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist was miraculously born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were said to be barren and too old to have any children (Luke 5:1-25).
You may also recall that in the story of the Annunciation the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant. For that reason, the Church today celebrates the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist six months before celebration of Christmas, on June 24 or 25 (depending on the denomination).John the Baptist is an important figure in Christian tradition and is mentioned in all four Gospels. He is remembered (and named) for his role in baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan—one of the stories of the manifestation of the divinity of Jesus, which we hear during Epiphany:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV, here and throughout).
John Salmon / St Michael & All Angels, Lansdowne Drive, London Fields, London E8 - Mural / CC BY-SA 2.0
The Gospels focus on John the Baptist as foretelling the coming of Jesus, thus he has also been called John the Forerunner. In fact, much of the story of his life recalls the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. Luke’s Gospel carefully parallels several stories of John’s birth and Jesus’ birth. John is also described as a fulfillment of prophecy from the Book of Isaiah: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:3; Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:4; compare Isaiah 40:3).
All the canonical Gospels share this prophetic image. John 1: 6-8 reads, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” And in Matthew 3: 11, John says to his followers, “‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’”
It even appears that the continued prominence of the story of John the Baptist—and John’s disciples (Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33)—and Jesus’ baptism by John was a “problem” for the Gospel writers. The three latter Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and John) take special care to have John emphasize his deference to Jesus. In Matthew, for example, John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And Jesus answers, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:14-15, NRSV).
Artists picked up this theme as well. Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow (1505-6) shows John as a toddler, clothed in his traditional animal skin, kneeling before the unclothed infant Jesus (showing his humanity) at the knees of Mary. Jesus is grasping the traditional reed staff/cross of John, in visual prophecy of Jesus’ death on the cross.
The Gospels of Mark (6:17-29) and Matthew (14:3-12) also tell the story of the beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod, again with a view to foreshadowing the story of Jesus: As John was killed by an official installed by the Roman overlords, Herod (Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and son of Herod the Great), so Jesus was killed by an official installed by the Roman overlords, Pilate, governor of Judea. John the Baptist, Mark and Matthew tell us, was arrested because he dared to criticize Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and it was that wife who requested the beheading of John. The presentation of the head of John to Baptist on a platter to Herod was a popular dramatic image with artists.
Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1761
John the Baptist is especially revered in Eastern Christian traditions, where he is considered the last of the Old Testament prophets and a bridge between the prophetic traditions of the Old Testament and the New Covenant of the New Testament. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers John the Baptist on six different feast days! (The Catholic Church commemorates St. John the Baptist on two Feast days and the Episcopal Church includes only one.) In the traditions of Church of Latter Day Saints, St. John the Baptist is said to have appeared to their founder Joseph Smith on the Susquehanna River in Harmony Township, PA (in Susquehanna County in the eastern part of Pennsylvania—not the Harmony Township in Beaver County).
Beyond the Christian honoring of him, John the Baptist is also a prominent prophet in Islamic tradition, where he is called Yahya. With many similarities to the Gospel of Luke, the Qur’an shares the story of Yahya’s birth to Zechariah (or Zakaria) whose wife was said to be barren (Quran, sura 19 (Maryam), verse 7). The Qur’an also describes Yahya as a pure, devout, and wise child.
Mandaeans are an ethnic and religious group who especially revere John the Baptist, along with other biblical figures including Adam and Noah. Their native language is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, but as a people they have spent most of their history in southern Iraq. There are only about 60,000 Mandeans living around the world today—including a community in Worcester, Massachusetts, shown in these photographs. For Mandaeans, baptism is a recurring ritual that offers a sense of purification.
The story of John the Baptist connects to us as Christians through baptism and through the ways in which John’s story parallels Jesus’ story. The New Zealand Prayer Book (p. 652) focuses on another potential connection with John’s story: the courage of John the Baptist in the story of his encounter with Herod. This prayer for John’s courage is meaningful for us today:
God our strength and our hope,
grant us the courage of John the Baptist,
constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice
and patiently to suffer for the truth's sake;
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit
one God now and for ever.
Grace and peace,
Annemarie, with special thanks this week to my mother, New Testament scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon
A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.