OUR CHURCH CALENDAR remembers many events in Christian history: martyrdoms, ecumenical councils, miracles, and even earthquakes. There are only three births celebrated, however: that of the Theotokos (September 8), the Nativity of Christ Himself (December 25) and the birth of St John the Forerunner (June 24).
We do not know where or when this feast was first observed, but it is mentioned in writings of fourth- and fifth-century Fathers in both East and West (Saints Ambrose, Augustine and John Chrysostom). The oldest shrine of the Forerunner, at Ain-Karem, home of his parents Zachariah and Elizabeth, was destroyed during the fifth-century revolt of the Samaritans against Byzantine rule. In the sixth century the French Council of Agde (506) declared this feast a “holyday of obligation” – not surprising, considering the esteem in which Christ Himself considered John (see Mt 11:11).
John’s Conception Foretold
The Gospel story of John’s conception and birth, which is the Biblical basis of this feast, is found in Luke 1. We read that John’s father, Zachariah, was a priest “of the division of Abijah” (Lk 1:4). According to the custom of the day, priests were enrolled in various groupings or divisions which took turns serving in the temple for two weeks at a time. The Gospel says that, while Zachariah was offering incense in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that Elizabeth, Zachariah’s wife, would bear him a son, who was to be named John.
Zachariah could not understand how this could be, as both he and his wife were up in years. Because of his reluctance to believe, Zachariah was told by the angel, “Behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time” (Luke 1:20). And so it happened.
John and Elijah
The angel tells Zachariah that his son would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to ‘turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
In this promise we find an echo of the following prophecy from the Book of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophetic books. “Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). In some arrangements of the Bible, these are the last words of the Old Testament, pointing it forward to the Messianic Age to come.
Believing Jews held that Elijah would come to prepare the way for the Messiah. Many saw John as “Elijah,” the fulfillment of that prophecy, foretelling to all the coming of Christ. As the Lord Himself said about John, “If you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). Clearly, John is not some kind of reincarnation of the 9th century bc prophet, but he is said to have come “in the spirit and power of Elijah.”
The Forerunner Is Born
The Gospel story of John continues with the narrative of his birth: “Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her. So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zachariah. His mother answered and said, ‘No; he shall be called John.’
“But they said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.’ So they made signs to his father —what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, ‘His name is John.’ So they all marveled. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God” (Lk 1:57-64).
St Augustine saw Zachariah’s muteness as symbolic of the time before Christ and viewed his release as an image of its passing. “The release of Zachariah’s voice at the birth of John,” he wrote, “has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. His tongue is released because a voice is being born… the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
The Canticle of Zachariah
The Gospel records as Zachariah’s praise of God a beautiful hymn which has found a place in the liturgy of both East and West. Often given the title “Benedictus” (from the first word of the Latin translation), this hymn is for the most part a string of verses from the psalms and other Old Testament texts. It glorifies God for His greatness and for the love He has shown to His people.
“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, to perform the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham: to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:68-75).
At this point the hymn begins to make specific reference to John. He is described – with what some have called the clarity of hindsight – as prophet, forerunner, and preacher of repentance. These are, of course, the qualities which the Gospels attribute to John during his ministry at the Jordan.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Orient from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79).
In our liturgy this canticle is added to the hymn of the Virgin at the ninth ode of orthros during the Fasts.
The One from the East
The word anatole, translated above as Orient, would be used repeatedly in our hymns referring to Christ. Sometimes it is translated as Dayspring, or as the One who rises. We hear it in the Christmas troparion (“to recognize in You the One who rises from on high”). In the troparion “Dance, O Isaiah” sung at crownings and ordinations the word is translated as “His name is Orient.”
The word anatole literally means sunrise and, by extension, the East (where the sun rises). It invokes the image of the rising sun, which itself is an image of Christ. He is the Dayspring, the Sunrise, of God’s saving plan for us. As the sunrise brings the promise of a new day, the appearance of Christ brings the assurance that the Kingdom of God is now at hand. As we sing in the exapostilarion of Christmas, “From on high our Savior came, the rising Sun who shone from the East.” And John is the herald of that rising Sun.