John the Baptist is given a very large place in the church tradition. From the history of his birth, the gospel narrative begins; Christ is often spoken about in His speeches; Many churches, monasteries and even cities are dedicated to him. But why? After all, if you read the Gospel quickly, it may seem that the Forerunner was as much a prophet as the preceding messengers of God, and his preaching is not much different from their heroic deed. What was unusual about his ministry?
Yes, in fact, everything was unusual. Starting from the fact that his parents - the priest Zachary and Elizabeth, already at a very old age, had no children and already resigned themselves to their status of a childless couple. And so - and damned, because at that time the absence of spouses in the offspring caused the public a direct suspicion that they were sinners, because the children of the Jews were considered the reward of God for a righteous life.
But here there is a miracle - already finally reconciled Zacharias during the service receives the angel's message in the church about the future birth of his son. And what a son - a prophet and messenger of the coming of the Messiah! Could Zacharias not doubt? After all, when something very desirable already ceases to dream, then any words about the implementation of dreams are perceived with disbelief, even if they are spoken by an angel. Zechariah did not believe it. And as a sign that what the angel said is true, the Lord made him dumb. His mouth opened only on the birthday of the promised son.
But Elizabeth believed it! Learning about pregnancy, she did not speak about it to anyone for six months, not wanting to endure such a long-awaited and fragile happiness for people. Only after the rounding of her figure did Elizabeth cease to hide. Finally, her reproach was over, and instead of skewing her contempt and pity she accepted congratulations from relatives, friends and acquaintances. And when the son was born, there was no limit to the joy! Zechariah by the will of God was able to speak and tell about what the angel told him. And all their acquaintances were amazed at what was happening, realizing that such wonderful circumstances speak of the special fate of the child.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist
Then the gospel story breaks, and further in the Scripture John appears already a mature man, tempered life in the hardest conditions of the desert. Lack of information is given to us by Tradition, and these facts are full of tragedy. Six months after John's birth, the Savior was born in Bethlehem. Learning about the ancient prophecy that the infant from Bethlehem will occupy the Israeli throne, then the king Herod became frightened and decided to eliminate possible rivals by killing all the children in the vicinity of Jerusalem under two years.
The threat also looms over John, because his parents lived in a suburb of Jerusalem, and the rumor about a miracle child has not yet abated in the people. First the soldiers of Herod came to Zacharias in the temple and right during the service they demanded to give them a boy. Zacharias did not answer them, and they killed him between the altar and the sanctuary. Meanwhile, Elizabeth managed to escape to the desert.
Beheading of John the Baptist, 1608 - Caravaggio
The first weeks the mother and son did not leave the cave in which they sheltered from the soldiers, but they were not hungry - the angel brought them everything they needed. Until the year Elizabeth nursed the baby with her breast, then began to accustom him to desert food - locusts, wild honey, grass. After another few months, Elizabeth died. The tradition says that angels took up the education of the child, and modern researchers believe that John grew up with the Essenes - representatives of the radical Jewish trend, which in its statute was very similar to monasticism.
They were inhabitants of the desert, who voluntarily left the crowded places for a more complete service to God. But John's "Essene" past is only a hypothesis, and we know almost nothing about the prophet's childhood. The Church says only that it was in the desert that his hard and uncompromising, huge character was formed. John knew that the Lord had chosen him to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. He could refuse, but he did not. On the contrary, John enthusiastically accepted his lot and was faithful to the end of his vocation.
Chapter of John the Baptist
The difficulty of John's feat was twofold. On the one hand, there have been no prophets in the Israeli people for more than three centuries, and they have been perceived by people as something fantastic. There were, of course, various impostors, preachers, exalted sectarians and just rebels, but real prophets, in whom the power of God, spirit, firmness and conviction was felt, were not. Therefore, John's preaching was a great temptation for many: he rebuked and spoke as Elijah did before him.
Everyone understood that John was a prophet, but not all could agree with the veracity of his arguments. On the other hand, even in the time of Solomon (and this is 9 centuries before Christ), the idea of the Messiah as an earthly ruler began to form in Israel. And one of John the Baptist's goals was to show that the Messiah is not at all what the people and the political elite expect. John clearly spoke as a representative of the coming Christ. And if he himself presented himself to society as a formidable exposer, not bound by any conventions and possessing no social status, it meant that the Messiah would not be a politician either.
John the Baptist in hell
John was a forerunner, that is, a pioneer. He was the shadow of Christ, his preaching stirred the society of that time and created the necessary background for the spread of the Gospel among the Jews. Pioneer and messenger of Christ, John was everywhere - even in hell. Indeed, until the Resurrection of Christ, the souls of all people fell into the Sheol - a place devoid of joy, closed from God.
The Christian tradition says that after his death (treacherously organized by Herodias, who fiercely hated John for denouncing her lawlessness), the Forerunner got into Sheol. But even in the shadow of hell, he told everyone that the Savior came to Earth, and very soon he would lead them out of the realm of darkness to light. He will lead everyone who believes in Him. "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" -these words were central to John here and on the other side of death.
The fate of the Baptist repeats the destiny of the Lord himself: the way up, but - the way through the cross. Then many, many Christians - apostles, martyrs, monks, holy fools, righteous people - passed by the same road. All of them to some extent imitated the Savior. But to the fullest extent it was John. Therefore, the Church gave him such a high rank - the Forerunner. It combined monastic asceticism, and apostolic power, and love of God, and the stamina of the martyr, and the talent of the preacher. It is only in this vein that it becomes clear why Christ said that among women born to women there is no equal to John (Luke 7: 28).