The Synaxis of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John

January 6 marks the Feast of Theophany for the Orthodox Church. Theophany commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist. The Third Antiphon of the feast proclaims the day’s theology:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, and called Thee his beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

St. John the Baptist

The following day focuses on the holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. Such a day is called a Synaxis — the Church gathers together to commemorate the the feast’s “supporting actor(s). In his gospel, St. Mark writes of St. John’s purpose and ministry:

Behold, I will send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way: a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John was baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark: 1 – 4).

During the time of his ministry priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to question John. They were trying to determine who he was and why he was baptizing. He denied that he is the Christ. He denied that he was Elijah. He denied he was the Prophet. The authorities assembled asked him, “Then why are you baptizing…?” (John 1:25). The cousin of our Lord replies, “I baptize you with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1: 26). St. John, the next day after his questioning, reveals fully the identity of our Lord Jesus Christ:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and remain on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1: 29 -34).

Thus, the ministry of St. John was ultimately to reveal the Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Christ was not only revealed then for the forgiveness of sins, but also for those of us who live today in the twenty first century since his act of reconciliation is without limit to space and time. Then, we can also state that St. John the Baptist’s ministry is also without limit to space and time: we who live today are still effected by his ministry. He still makes straight the path to Christ for us.

I turn to the Deesis (meaning prayer, or petition) icon. This icon pictures Christ enthroned with Mary, our Lord’s mother and the Queen Mother, at his right side, and St. John the Baptist at his left. They both are interceding before Christ in our behalf. Additionally, St. John is portrayed in nearly every iconostasis in the Orthodox world. In all of these icons he still points to Christ to direct us to his presence. I would say that he points us to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for in the Eucharist Christ is re-presented to us. All that is of Christ is re-presented to us: his birth, baptism, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and even his coming again. Thus, by the Eucharist, Christ, the Lamb of God, continues to administer his forgiveness of sins to us. During communion, those who receive the Body and Blood of Christ hear these words from the priest: “The servant / handmaid of God partakes of the precious and holy Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting.”

By participation in the Eucharist, we are partakers of the divine nature: the life and light of Christ are taken into the entirety of our being. We read this in the gospel of St. John (the Apostle):

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6: 53 – 56).

By the Eucharist Christ is in us, and we are in him. Given this, I state that St. John the Baptist’s words give us prayerful purpose as we all approach Christ in the Eucharist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 30).

A prayer is suggested, “St. John, Forerunner, Prophet, and Baptist, pray for us sinners that Christ may increase in us, and we decrease, that we may bear Christ more fully to all and all things around us.”

In Christ,

Fr. Irenaeus

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