St. John the Baptist: How To Lose One’s Head for Christ

Mosaic of St. John the Baptist from the Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem
Mosaic of St. John the Baptist from the Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

The next list of saints in the Roman Canon begins with St. John the Baptist. Now, at first, I was thinking, that this article might be a little boring. Everyone knows pretty much everything about him. We have heard about his whole life, from birth to death, in the Gospels. There aren’t too many Christian legends about him, as there were about the apostles. Frankly, I was going to skip St. John, but actually, I discovered that there are quite a few interesting things that make him as interesting as he is!

Needless to say, St. John the Baptist is incredibly important for our Christian faith. His life is woven together by all four Gospels, although most of it is gathered from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). He was the son of Zechariah, a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary. We all know the story surrounding John’s birth (Luke 1:5-25, if you forgot!) and that he went off to live as a hermit in the Judean Desert until around 27 AD, when he returned to begin his ministry of baptizing, a new thing at the time.

It is interesting that St. John the Baptist is known from other non-Christian sources as well. He is mentioned prominently as the son of Zechariah in the Qur’an, but also in the secular writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. Writing around 93 AD, Josephus emphasized John as a good man who encouraged virtue and righteousness among the people. While the Gospels tell us that he was executed by Herod because of his wife Herodias (and her being put on the spot by John for marrying against the Jewish Law), Josephus takes a more political route as to the reasons of John’s death. He claims that John had so many zealous disciples gathered to him that Herod feared him inciting rebellion, and so he executed him in the palace at Machaerus, fifteen miles southeast of the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.

St. John the Baptist wasn’t simply important from a historical perspective, but from a spiritual one as well. He is commonly known as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus. He was the last of the prophets, and in fact, was foretold in the Old Testament as the greatest of the prophets, the returning Elijah:

Isaiah 40:3 – “A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”

Malachi 3:1 (the last book of the Old Testament!) – “Now I am sending my messenger – he will prepare the way before me; and the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; the messenger of the covenant whom you desire – see, he is coming! says the Lord of hosts.”

St. John the Baptist is so important in the Church that he has two feast days to commemorate the two most important events of his life. We celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24, and the Beheading of John on August 29. I guess if your patron saint is St. John, you are owed twice the presents! Even though he didn’t see the salvation that Jesus brought in his own lifetime, St. John is an ideal for us to follow – in the way he lived his life, proclaiming tirelessly the Word of God, and in the way that he died, for the truth and love of God. St. John the Baptist, pray for us!