St. George
Serbian Orthodox Church
Carmichaels, PA

St. John the Baptist


by Fr. Rodney Torbic

"Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." (Mt. 11:11)

The Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on August 29/September 11 each year. The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is a fast day in the Holy Orthodox Church.

We are called each September ll to pause and reflect on the Beheading of St. John. We are called to think about the gruesome death he experienced. St. John's beheading is a much different day than his conception celebrated on October 6/September 23 or his nativity celebrated on June 24/July 7.

When we think of St. John, his baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is a most joyful moment in the Church. Every year on January 6/19, the Church celebrates the Feast of Theophany with great joy. On the following day, January 7/20, the Holy Orthodox Church devotes primary attention to St. John.

January 7/20 is known in the Church as the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist, Many Serbian Orthodox Christians celebrate January 20th as their Krsna Slava. Liturgical remembrance of the Feast of Theophany extends to January 13/26.

God honored St. John in ways no other human has been honored. St. John has a prominent place in salvation history. The iconastasis in each Orthodox Church bears an icon of St. John.

The first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke provides considerable detail of the conception and birth of St. John. Jesus Christ's birth is announced in the same chapter.

John's parents Zacharias and Elizabeth are specifically mentioned in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke. Their names are written in history. They are made known by God for all to know.

Learning more about the life of St. John helps us to make order out of life and develop a Christian perspective. We are pressed and challenged in the current century to make order out of life. We are pressed and challenged to understand current events and the direction of the world.

Careful attention to the liturgical calendar of the Church will help us form an Orthodox Christian world view. Every year the Church calls us to review the history of salvation. Each day of the year is set aside by the Church to commemorate saints and martyrs, feasts and events that reveal to us God and God at work.

Each day, when we live the life of the Church, we enter into the experience of the saints and martyrs, the feasts and events of God. Through the liturgical life of the Church, we are introduced to and learn about what has gone before, what is occuring at present and what can be expected in the future.

The life and death of St. John the Baptist celebrated during the liturgical year are examples of daily lessons of the Holy Orthodox Church.

Violence is not new upon the earth. Any reader of the Bible will quickly come to the conclusion that violence is long embedded in history. Several years ago a parishioner with a career in law enforcement called the parish house one evening. He said he had been reading the Bible and was amazed at the degree of violence he found. He was prompted to comment on this observation.

The impact of violence in the present may cause us to be startled. Certainly violent behavior has a devasting impact on those who are its victims. Certainly violent behavior has a devasting impact on the surviving loved ones of victims.

Anyone working with victims of violent crimes or with personal experience in war has vivid recollections of the horrors of violence.

The Church helps us to deal with violence. The Church helps us to remain sane when at times it seems insanity prevails. Some years ago Father Thomas Hopko made the statement: "the sole haven of 'sanity' is the Orthodox Christian Church"

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos calls the Church a spiritual hospital which heals man. Specifically Vlachos says: "The Church is not an association of good an pious people, but the blessed Body of Christ within which people are cured."

We need to keep in mind the therapeutic nature of the Church. Each time we are at Vespers, at Matins, at the Divine Liturgy we hear the petition of the Great Litany. We pray for the peace of whole world. We pray for the salvation of our souls. Our prayers are at once universal and not limited. Our prayers are for the multitudes and for the individual.

For Orthodox Christians, the terrorist attack on America in 2001 on September ll linked the Beheading of St. John the Baptist with the horrible contemporay deaths.

As St. John died centuries ago in a most gruesome way, so modern individuals in great number suffered death in horrific fashion. People of each century must seek guidance from God in making sense of out life and out of death.

The tropar for the Conception of St. John rings with joy. The feelings of Elizabeth are captured in the words: "Rejoice, O thou barren one who hadst not borne until now; for lo, in all truth thou hast conceived the lamp of the Sun, and he shall send forth his light over all the earth which is afflicted with blindness."

The same troparion exhorts boldness in Zacharias to cry out "The One to be born is the blest Prophet of God Most High." When the liturgical text reminds us of the impending birth of John, our minds drift to the birth of Christ, the Prince of Peace. (Is. 9:6)

In the present century when violence continues to make headlines, we cannot help but wonder about what is necessary for peace to dominate the world.The solution to the dilemma is Jesus Christ.

It is for Christ to prevail in each heart, in each home. The Holy Apostle Paul told the Ephesians about Christ in these words: ""For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation." (Ep.2:14)

Men and women of all backgrounds, of all nationalities, of all races can find peace in Christ if they choose. For those who of Christ, for those who know Christ, the responsibility is to live the Christian life, to share the love of Christ.

Non-believers come to believe when they see. Christians are convincing when Christians live the Christian life. The complete sacrifice of John the Baptist is a source for on-going contemplation.

Between the joy of John's conception and the tragic ending of his life by beheading, the Holy Scriptures and the liturgical texts of the Church remind and teach us of the importance of John.

Centuries have served to witness to John. John's beheading did not silence the witness of this giant. Orthodox Christians name their children after John the Baptist. Orthodox Christians name their churches after John the Baptist. Orthodox Christians celebrate St. John as their patronal saint.

In 2002, an individual at the St. George Serbian Orthodox Church in Carmichaels, Pennsylvania carefully chose May 25/June 7, the Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist, as the day for his conversion to Holy Orthodoxy.

John the Baptist knew Jesus Christ in the flesh. The joy of John leaping in his mother Elizabeth's womb upon the greeting of Mary, the Theotokos, is recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke.

The relationship between Jesus and John continued. At one point John sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask: "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" (Mt. 11:2).

We have the benefit of centuries of evidence regarding Jesus Christ. We have the opportunity each Divine Liturgy to partake of the Precious Body and Blood of Christ. We have the opportunity with regularity to experience Christ in prayer, in Confession, in Holy Unction.

Orthodox Christians are informed about Holy Confession, about Holy Communion. Orthodox Christians are informed about prayer and about Holy Unction.

The degree of participation in the Holy Sacraments is relatively small. The seriousness of prayer is relatively small. Those who attend Holy Unction services are particularly small in number.

Somehow after centuries, people still do not draw near to Christ in larger numbers. Those who experience Christ and grow in Christ know the joy of Christ. Those who draw near and remain near to Christ add to the testimony and evidence of the centuries.

We know from St. Pauls' Epistle to the Hebrews: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever." (Heb. 13:8) John the Baptist experienced Christ. Present day believers experience Jesus Christ. The centuries have not been a barrier to Jesus Christ.

On Holy Pascha we hear the reading from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John. We are reminded each Pascha that Jesus was in the beginning. We are told each Pascha that John came to bear witness to the true Light that all might believe. (Jn. 1:1-9)

The day the Church commemorates the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is a day to examine our own commitment to Christ. It is a day to seriously review our own lives, to reassess and reevaluate the degree to which we live in Christ.

Priests hold in their hands the Precious Body and Blood of Christ. When believers commune, the Prescious Body and Blood of Christ enters into the communicants members' veins and hearts.

Believers have the opportunity at each Divine Liturgy to experience Jesus Christ, to receive the Body of Christ, to taste of the fountain of immortality. Each Divine Liturgy is the time for serious contemplation of drawing near to Christ, is the time for experiencing Christ.

In the Sacrament of Holy Confession, the believer comes to Jesus Christ with his or her confession. The pardoning for the offenses is from Jesus Christ. The priest is but a witness.

The authority for Confession is traced directly to Jesus Christ in the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of St. John (Jn. 20:21-23). Christ's commissioning of His disciples is considered the foundation for the Sacraments of Holy Orders and Confession.

Believers who repent of the grave sins and come to Jesus Christ in sincerity know of the weight lifted from their hearts by the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

Jesus answered the questioned asked by John if He was the "Coming One". Jesus told John's disciples to tell John what they heard and saw. St. Matthew's Gospel in the eleventh chapter tells the disciples saw: "The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them." (Mt. ll5)

Believers who come to Church have the Gospel preached to them every Divine Liturgy. Believers who are attentive to the teachings of Christ, who are attentive to the teachings of the Church, the services of the Church, to the lives of the saints, come to know first hand of the healings of the Christ that take place.

The Sacrament of Holy Unction is served in Orthodox Churches often during Holy Week but also at other times of the year. When one attends the services over an extended period of time, the accounts of people being healed becomes known. Certainly spiritual healing is a reality for those who come to Christ in faith.

St. Apostle Paul told the Corinthians: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new." (II Cor. 5:17) The joy of the newness in Christ is evident at Holy Baptism and Chrismation. It is evident when adult sinners make a complete turnabout in the way they live their lives.

John the Baptist was at the forefront of Jesus' earthly ministry. John was present when the Trinity was made manifest in the Jordan. We look back centuries to John. We remember John in the present.

In the Vespers each year for the Synaxis of St. John the Baptist we have a portent of the hope in Christ. As we celebrate the Vespers, we beseech the Glorious Prophet and Forerunner John to entreat Christ that we may escape the waves of turmoil which are to come.

Each day of the liturgical year commemorating St. John the Baptist is a source of education for the believers. Each day is a time to learn more about St. John. Each day is a time to redevote our lives to Christ.

The Vespers for the Beheading of St. John marks his beheading in the present. Time is transcended in the service. Each year when Vespers of the Beheading is celebrated, we hear: "Today the prophet among prophets, the greatest of the prophets, was sanctified to the service of the Lord from his mother's womb, was beheaded by the iniquitous king."

We have to think carefully about the implications of the vesperal reference to the present. In what ways is John being beheaded today? Certainly the many wars against Christianity that are occurring in different forms must be considered in this context.

St. NIKOLAI (Velimirovic) in The Prologue From Ochrid made the interesting observation that while John the Baptist lived, he did not work a single miracle. However St. John's relics have the blessed power of working miracles. This observation is recorded in the account of the Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist.

The experience of venerating the relics of saints is memorable. Orthodox Christians having the opportunity to travel to locations where relics are located remember and cherish the blessed experience.

In his commentary on St. John the Baptist, St. NIKOLAI captured the uniqueness of St. John among prophets. St. Bishop NIKOLAI wrote: "John differs from all the other prophets in that he had the joy of showing forth to the world the One Whom he had foretold."

The holy prophets of God help us to understand better the birth of Christ. The holy prophets of God help us to understand better the culture of which they were a part. The holy prophets of God help us to think about the work of God through the centuries.

Each person must work out his or her salvation. This is done through choices made. This is done through serious participation in the Holy Sacraments. This is done through prayer and fasting and almsgiving.

We find rest for our souls when we turn to Christ. We find rest for our souls when we take Christ's yoke upon us. Jesus invites each person to come to Him. His invitation is: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Mt. ll:28)

Active Orthodox Christians will find references to St. John the Baptist throughout the year. Indeed, every Tuesday is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. A week does not pass without the Church taking time to remember St. John the Baptist.

To grow in Christ, we must learn more about Christ. We must learn more about those who experienced the closeness with Him that can help us with our interest in drawing closer to Christ.

St. John the Baptist continues to be honored throughout the centuries for his relationship with Jesus Christ. When we learn more about St. John, we learn more about the life with Christ.

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