Conception of St. John the Baptist (September 23)
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Lk. 1, 5-25
St. John the Baptist has remained a beloved saint throughout the life of the Church, and many religious orders, institutions, churches, and shrines were established
under his patronage. The Eastern Church especially venerates him and he is given a prominence in the Liturgy and Church art to a degree which is not seen in the West – an expression of Our Lord’s words “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there is none greater than John the Baptist.”What little we know
of the life of John the Baptist and his mission is contained in the four gospels.
John was a prophet, and is also called the forerunner, precursor, or harbinger, due to his role in heralding the coming of Jesus Christ. He began his ministry around the age of 27, going into the desert, living on locusts and honey and dressing in a tunic made of camel hair. At the river Jordan, near Jericho, he announced that all men must be obligated to wash away their sins “with the tears of sincere penance.” His baptizing in the river was mystically significant in a way the legal washings and purifications of Jewish law were not. This is where he earned his name as “The Baptist.”
Many priests and Levites were sent to ask John is he was the Christ; he confessed “I am not the Christ” and to his followers he preached, “I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”.
He had been preaching and baptizing for some time when Our Lord came to St. John to be baptized. John first refused, saying, “I ought to be baptized by you,
and you come to me?” Out of obedience, John eventually did baptize Jesus. It was, as St. Ambrose has said, not for Jesus to be cleansed Himself, but to sanctify the waters, to give them the virtue to cleanse the sins of man.
John the Baptist continued his ministry, preaching and baptizing on the Jordan for sometime, before being jailed, and eventually beheaded, after he publicly spoke out against Herod’s choice to set his wife aside and keep his brother’s wife as his mistress.
Typically, the feast proper of saint is celebrated on the day of their death. While we do also honor the death and martyrdom of John the Baptist in August, the feast of his birth has long held a place of honor in both the Greek and Latin liturgies, as the Gospels relate the birth of John the Baptist to the birth of Our Lord. John, the precursor, was filled with the Holy Spirit, as the angel Gabriel dictated he would be, even from his mother’s womb, and this is reason for triumph and for honor. John was the very one of which the prophet wrote “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” In his nativity and in his adult life, St. John prepares the way for the Lord.