WHO IS THE GREATEST SAINT after the Theotokos? Recent sentiment in the West looks to her spouse, St Joseph, as the foremost representative of holiness. For the Eastern Churches, however, “the Lord’s witness is enough” (troparion of St John). The liturgy here refers to the words of Christ concerning John, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11) Thus John the Baptist is regularly depicted in the “Deisis” icons flanking Christ, opposite the Theotokos. This same grouping is found as the basic component of icon screens along with the icon of the church’s patron.
A moving testimony to St John comes from the fourth-century Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose. John, he writes, “…did not enlarge the boundaries of an empire. He did not prefer triumphs of military conquest to honors. Rather, what is more, he disparaged human pleasures and lewdness of body, preaching in the desert with great spiritual power. He was a child in worldliness, but great in spirit. He was not captivated by the allurements of life, nor did he change his steadfastness of purpose through a desire to live…” (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 1.31).
John in the Scriptures
John’s unique holiness is displayed in the story of the Theotokos’ visit to his mother Elizabeth. There the Gospel tells us that, at Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (see Lk 1:39-45). The Gospel thus shows John as aware even in the womb of the greatness of Christ who had been conceived in the womb of Mary. Thus he fulfills the prophecy made by the angel Gabriel to John’s father, Zachariah: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:45).
Reflecting on this event, St Ambrose connects the experience of John in the womb with that of another prophet, Jeremiah. This prophet, who lived during the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, describes God’s call to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). While Jeremiah describes himself as consecrated before his birth, Luke describes John as nothing less than filled with the Holy Spirit.
John reappears in the Gospels as an adult, living in the Judean desert and baptizing at the Jordan. This “desert” was not what we consider desert; it was actually grazing land, useless for agriculture but able to sustain the sheep and goats and the occasional solitary who lived there.
Nothing is said in the Gospels about the intervening years of John’s life, nor how he came to be in the desert. Some modern scholars have speculated that John was a member of the Essenes, a Jewish sect at the time which had retired to the desert and established a community there. Earlier lore, recorded in the fourth-century Life of John by Serapion of Thmuis, held that John was spirited away to the desert by his mother to escape slaughter when Herod’s servants killed the Holy Innocents. In Serapion’s Life, Elizabeth died when her son was seven years old; thereafter the boy was cared for by an ascetic in the desert.
The Ministry of John
St Mark’s Gospel presents us with a thumbnail description of John as a Forerunner, preparing the way for One greater than he by calling people to “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). In Matthew John is depicted preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). God’s action in Christ was immanent; those in need of repentance had best make up their minds to do so.
Matthew singles out the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious establishment – calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7) most in need of repentance. He depicts the coming Messiah as One who “will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor” (we would say “clean house”) burning up the unrepentant “with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
One image from the Gospels has found its way into many icons of John baptizing. John is described as warning, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9), meaning that the house cleaning is about to begin. In many icons an axe is shown imbedded in a tree or tree stump to suggest this image.
In Luke specific examples for repentance are given in response to the question “What shall we do?” John tells the tax collectors not to extort more money than the tax law allows. He tells soldiers not to intimidate or accuse others falsely and to be content with their pay. And he tells everyone to give alms from what they have (see Luke 3:10-14).
In St John’s Gospel, another note is added to the Baptist’s message. He identified Jesus as the One who is coming and depicts his own work as a testimony to Jesus. “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world …I came baptizing with water that He should be revealed to Israel” (John 1:29, 31).
The Baptism of Repentance
Immersion into a stream, river or bathing pool (Mikveh) was practiced for ritual purposes in first century Judaism. Orthodox and many Conservative Jews continue the practice to this day. Ritual baths were necessary for Jewish men in preparation for Yom Kippur or the Sabbath, for entering the temple or ascending the Temple Mount. Women were required to bathe for ritual purity after childbirth or menstruation. Gentiles submitted to a ritual bath upon converting to Judaism.
Some differences between these ritual baths and John’s baptism are obvious. Jewish ritual baths are self-administered; John baptized people into the water. Jewish baptism was a physical cleansing to achieve ritual purity; John’s baptism was to signify repentance, a moral act. In John’s time, Jewish people expressed repentance by offering sacrifices in the temple. Since the destruction of the temple, Jews express repentance by prayer, almsgiving or doing righteous deeds. “Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now, one’s table atones” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, 55a.). Hospitality to the poor had become the Jewish way of atoning for sins.
John’s Baptism and Baptism into Christ
In the Acts of the Apostles, we read how St. Paul, “finding some disciples” in Ephesus, learned that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Hearing that they had been baptized with the baptism of John, St Paul explained: “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe in Him who would come after him, that is, in Christ Jesus” (Acts 19:4).
Christian baptism is neither a kind or ritual purification or a symbol of repentance. It is the incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ. Through faith we are buried with Him in baptism and then rise from the water with Him in the likeness of His resurrection. This effects an organic union with Christ in His Body the Church, a result never imagined by John. As we say at every baptism in the words of St. Paul (Galatians 3:27), “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”