THE LIFE OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST Through Icons and the Bible
On the wall was a large picture of St John being beheaded; I instantly felt a deep sympathy for him and prayed that the executioner had a well-sharpened sword! This experience inspired me to research his life through the many exquisite icons of St. John that exist, and from relevant passages in the Bible and other sources. My only knowledge of St. John at that time was from readings in church and the Bible.
The Old Testament refers to John the Baptist in several passages, though not by name. One of these is under the 'Proclamation of Hope' [Isaiah 40:3-6]:
“A voice cries out, ‘Proclaim a message!’ Go up on a high mountain and proclaim the good news to Jerusalem!”
In the New Testament, similar forecasts are mentioned, particularly in Luke 3:4-6:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way for of the Lord, Make his paths straight.”
The Conception of St. John the Baptist
The first chapter of Luke 1:1-45 recounts the story of John's conception and birth to Zechariah (sometimes called Zachary), and Elizabeth:
“In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah...and his wife Elizabeth. ...they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as a priest before God... there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. ...even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.”
So, as with Jesus, John’s birth is announced by an Archangel in advance of the conception. Zechariah receives this proclamation of the Archangel with disbelief and is struck dumb.
The Visitation of the Theotokos
When Elizabeth is about six months pregnant, her cousin, Mary, by this time pregnant herself with Jesus Christ, visits her and stays for about three months. Mary goes into Zechariah’s house and when Elizabeth hears her greeting, she was filled with the Holy Spirit. She cries out:
"Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.”
Mary responds with the words we now call ‘The Magnificat’:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from hence-forth all generations shall call me Blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath protected his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.” [Luke 1:39-56]
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
There are several passages within the Old Testament which are interpreted by Christians as being prophetic of John the Baptist. These include a passage in the Book of Malachi 3:1 that refers to a prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord:
“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.”
Ein Karem in the Jerusalem Hills is traditionally considered the birthplace of John the Baptist. John was born as the days began to grow shorter. Christ was born in winter as the days were growing longer, since it was fitting that John’s status should diminish and the glory of God increase. Many spiritual writers, as in a homily of Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz (784-856), consider that this mirrors John’s statement: “He must grow greater and I must grow smaller.” The Nativity of John the Baptist is observed by the Church as a holy event on June 24th. This is exactly six months before the Nativity of Christ.
Zechariah's voice is restored with the naming of John.
John the Baptist marks the boundary between the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, the Lord speaks of him in these terms when he says that the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament are valid until the coming of John the Baptist. John is the representative of the past, and it was therefore fitting that he should be born of elderly parents, yet, while still in his mother's womb, he was declared to be a prophet in recognition of his future role. In the womb he was already designated by God to be Christ's precursor.
John is also regarded as a prophet in Islam, the Baha’i faith and Judaism. He is mentioned by the Jewish historian, Josephus (AD37-c.AD101) and, in the Qur'an, John is one of the twenty- five Prophets in whom Muslims believe.
I found the following quotation in the Qur'an:
“O John! Hold fast the Book with all your strength. We had bestowed wisdom upon him while he was still a child; and also endowed him with tenderness and purity; and he was exceedingly pious and cherishing to his parents. Never was he insolent or rebellious. Peace be upon him, the day he was born, and the day he will die, and the day he will be raised up alive.”[Quran: 12-15]
Christians commonly refer to John as the Precursor or Forerunner of Jesus. John is known as 'O PRODROMOS' – 'PRO' meaning 'before' and 'DROMOS' 'way' or 'road'. In a Samaritan manuscript in Aramaic, John is referred to as 'YOHANA AMUDANI', ‘The Baptist'.
As a fair morning running before the sun, the offspring of barren parents clearly proclaims the conceiving of the Virgin, making the illumination of godliness and grace shine to the ends of the whole inhabited earth. By thy birth, O Forerunner, the night of ungodliness was driven from the earth and the rays of grace were spread to the ends of the world; for thou dost reveal the sun that knows no evening.
O God who hast made this an honoured day for us by the birth of Saint John: bestow upon Thy people the grace of spiritual joys, and guide the hearts of all Thy faithful into the way of eternal salvation
St. John the Baptist: Life as a Prophet
“The child grew and became strong in the spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” [Luke 1:80]
Little is known about John the Baptist's life until he becomes a Prophet in the desert around the time that Jesus began his ministry. He lived in the wilderness, in the desert of Judea, as an ascetic leading a life of austere self-discipline and renouncing all material comfort. His food was locusts and honey and he is traditionally depicted as wearing a rough garment of camel hair with a leather belt. There are several passages in the Old Testament which are interpreted by Christians as being prophetic of John the Baptist. These include a verse in the Book of Malachi [3:1] that refers to a prophet who would prepare the coming of the Lord.
“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.”
When he was thirty, John began to preach on the banks of the Jordan and when he spoke of the coming of the Lord, he was asked: “Who are you?”, and he replied: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness”.
“John was indeed a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, who is the Word from the beginning, is eternal” (taken from a sermon of St Augustine).
The Saviour testified to John's greatness when he said that “among those born of woman there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist”, [Luke 7:8, Matthew 11:11]. Jesus said :“John is greater than the Prophets” [Luke 24:26]. However, John himself said: “He who comes after me ranks before me, and I am not worthy to undo the strap of his sandal” [Mark 1:7].
The Gospel relates that Jesus regarded John as “a burning and shining lamp” [John 5:35], and understood that He was “willing to rejoice for a while in his light” [John 5:35]. The book of Acts portrays the disciples of John as eventually merging with the followers of Jesus [Acts 18:24, 19: 6].
Theophany (Baptism) of Jesus Christ by St. John the Baptist
People came to John from Jerusalem, the whole province of Judaea and from the countryside near the River Jordan where he baptised them, saying: “Turn away from your sins because the Kingdom of God is near” [Matthew 3:2].
The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask John who he was. He replied: "You yourselves are my witnesses that I said I am not the Messiah but I have been sent ahead of Him.." [John 1:20].
John anticipated a Messianic figure who would be greater than himself and in the New Testament Jesus is the one whose coming John foretold.
One day, Jesus came from Galilee to John, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and you come to me?”. But Jesus answered: “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us to fulfil all righteousness”. Then John consented. [Matthew 3:13]
It is believed that John baptised Jesus at “Bethany beyond the Jordan called Bethabara” (described in the King James version of the Bible).
And when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the spirit of God descending like a dove alighting on him. And a voice from Heaven said: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” [Matthew 3:17].
The following words are taken from Psalm 97:5 and are used in the Canon of the Vigil when celebrating the baptism:
“O Lord, we glorify you as our God and Saviour. You are the wonderful glory of the Father, enlightening those who are in darkness, a sun that never sets, you came to shed light on everything with your holy baptism.”
“With fear and wonder, as once in heaven, so now at the Jordan the angels adoringly contemplated God's humility once more” (Cosmas of Maiuma, Canon of the Feast of the Baptism).
An ancient tradition of the Church states that: “When Christ was baptised, flames were seen above the water”. In the prayers of the Vigil of the Feast of the Baptism, speaking to Christ, John the Baptist compares him to fire and himself to dry straw: “You come to me, and I, like straw, don't dare come near the fire. Make me Holy, Lord, by your divine presence”.
The Baptism of Jesus represents not only the beginning of Christ's ministry in the world, but also the manifestation of the three hypostases of the Trinity:
“O Lord, the glorious Trinity was manifested at your baptism in the Jordan: the voice of the Father witnessed to you, calling you his beloved son, and the spirit, in the form of a dove, has confirmed the truth of these words. You appeared, O Christ God, and the world was enlightened, glory to you” [ Troparion of the Feast].
The Beheading of St. John the Baptist
In Luke 7:11, we understand that John is discouraged. He had denounced King Herod for living with his brother's wife, Herodias. John took a stand against sin and was not afraid to speak his mind! He told Herod: “it is unlawful to have her”. Herod has John arrested and chained in a prison cell.
Whilst he was in prison, John the Baptist heard about Christ’s preaching and sent some of his disciples to ask Him: “are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?”. Jesus answered, “Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing”.
In Matthew 14:3-12, we read about John’s beheading.
As the people regarded John as a prophet, Herod did not kill him. However, on his birthday, Salome, daughter of Herodias, danced before Herod who had sworn to give her anything she wanted. Her mother persuaded Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter and because Herod had given his word, and in order not to be humiliated in front of his guests, he commanded that it be given to her.
After his beheading, John’s disciples came and took the body and buried it (traditionally believed to be in Sebastia near modern-day Nablus in the West Bank); they then went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard this, he withdrew by boat to a deserted place, grieving and seeking peace and solace [Matthew 14:13].
The news of the death of John foretold Jesus’ own death.
The Feast of Beheading of St. John the Baptist is held on 29 August in both the Eastern and Western Churches. Eastern Christians fast on this day in honour of John's asceticism and in symbolic rejection of the drunken banqueting that precipitated his murder.
The Feast reminds us that John's death will soon be followed by Christ's own sacrificial death on the Cross. Jesus Himself confirmed this when he said to his disciples: “I tell you that Elijah has come already and they did not recognise him but treated him as they pleased; and the Son of Man will suffer similarly at their hands” [Matthew 17:12-13].
The disciples understood then that He had been speaking of John the Baptist.
John's mission as The Forerunner did not end with his martyrdom: he prepared the way for Christ even in the world of the dead. As the Orthodox vigil office for this Feast says:
“Therefore, having greatly contended and suffered for the truth, thou hast gone rejoicing to declare to those in hell the good tidings of God having appeared in the flesh, taking away sins of the world and granting us mercy.
The tongue that speaks of divine things is sent to those in hell and is a fore-announcer of Christ.
The glorious beheading of the Forerunner is part of a certain dispensation, for John preached in hell the coming of the Saviour: ‘...as martyr, thy head has been cut off by the sword and thou hast fore-announced him to those in hell’”.
The Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist
According to tradition, the head of St. John the Baptist was buried on the Mount of Olives where it remained hidden until the fourth century when the First Finding occurred during the construction of a church on the Mount. A vessel containing the head of John was discovered but reburied for fear of vandalism by unbelievers.
After the Second Finding in the year 452, as a result of a vision by two monks on a pilgrimage, it is said that the head was reburied in a cave near Emesa (now Homs in Western Syria), where a monastery was eventually built. The Feast of the First and Second Finding of the Head is observed on February 24th
The Third Finding of the Head occurred around the year 850 when it was revealed to the Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople in another vision that the head of St. John was hidden in Comana (modern Turkey), to where it had been removed during a period of iconoclastic persecution circa 820. The head was found and transferred to Constantinople where it was placed in a church at the Court. The Feast of the Third Finding is observed on May25th.
Today, several different locations claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist, among them Amiens Cathedral in France, brought there after the Fourth Crusade, and the San Silvestro in Capite in Rome. The truth is impossible to determine.
Troparion [Tone 4]
Kontonion [Tone 4]
Finally, I would like to show you two icons that I am interested in painting. The first is one that I am currently working on from the ‘Deesis’ Cycle:
The second icon is from a miniature iconostasis which families would take with them when travelling:
I am so grateful for that chance discovery of the chapel in the convent grounds with the beautiful tiled floor reflecting the stained glass windows where I became an admirer of St. John the Baptist.
DEDICATED TO DELL, (DEREK INGRAM), A DEAR FELLOW STUDENT ON AIDAN HART’S COURSE. HE COMPLETED TWO YEARS WITH US BEFORE BEING CALLED TO GOD’S KINGDOM.