St. John the Baptist

Gabriel’s appearance to Zachariah in St. John the
Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, Arran, SK

John the Baptist is one of the most venerated saints after the Virgin Mary and he is also called “the Forerunner” or “the Precursor” because he came before Christ and prophesied Christ’s Messianic ministry. Icons usually portray the Baptist wearing rough camel hair and, frequently, on an iconostas his hand is raised in prayer gesturing towards Jesus. In other icons he may be facing directly forward and raising his hand in the form of a blessing.

The Gospels tell us John was the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth. They had no children because Elizabeth was barren and they were both getting fairly old. John’s future was foretold by the Archangel Gabriel to Zachariah when Gabriel appeared to Zachariah while he was tending to his duties as a priest in the temple. After questioning Gabriel as to the possibility of this foretelling, Zachariah lost his speech at Gabriel’s command and it was restored only when Zachariah named his son John. Iconographer Stepan Meush illustrated Gabriel’s appearance to Zachariah in St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, Arran, Saskatchewan.

While we read about the Forerunner in the New Testament, he is more like an Old Testament prophet. Indeed, he was the last person to give prophesy of the coming of the Messiah. John had an enormous following of disciples, some of whom became the first apostles of Christ. When Jesus went to John to be baptised at the beginning of His ministry, the Gospels tell us: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29)
The mothers of Jesus and John were kinfolk but scripture does not give a lot of detail as to how well the two young men new each other and they clearly grew up under different circumstances. Western art sometimes depicts Jesus and John playing together as toddlers but one has to wonder how likely that would be, given the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt so soon after Christ’s birth. The Baptist and Christ were only about six months apart in age, judging from the Gospels. However, the face of St. John in icons often appears more creased with age than that of Christ’s, as if he had seen plenty of hard times, and John’s hair is usually wildly dishevelled. This emphasises St. John’s life as an ascetic in the desert.

Detail of the face of St. John the Baptist from the iconostas
of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church, Ottawa, ON

Because of the Baptist’s importance, the Church commemorates him on more than one day. His nativity is celebrated on June 24, about six months before the Nativity of Our Lord. His beheading is commemorated with solemnity on August 29. On January 7 we commemorate the Synaxis of John the Forerunner and Baptist. (Add 13 days to these dates for the Old Style calendar.)

The importance of the Forerunner is underscored by how frequently we see his icon on iconostasi. If a church does not have the icon of it’s patron to the left of the left deacons door, it more often than not has an icon of St. John the Baptist placed there. When the Russian Orthodox Church was doing missionary work among Ukrainians in Canada prior to World War I, there was a set of lithographs made available to several churches that were suitable for placing on iconostasi and one of the icons was that of St. John the Baptist.

Russian Lithograph of John the Baptist from the Russian
pre-revolutionary period – former Holy Trinity Bukowinian
Orthodox Church, Ottawa, ON

Some representations of St. John the Baptist depict him with wings symbolizing the Forerunner’s role as a messenger of the Lord. In Matthew 10: 11, it states: “Look, I send my messenger before your face.” A depiction of the Baptist with wings is sometimes argued fitting because God’s messengers are usually angels but St. John certainly was not an angel. Part of the confusion may be attributed to the word “messenger”, which in Greek is “angelos”.

In some icons of St. John the Baptist, we actually see the saint along with a head on a silver platter and this is a reference to the request made by the infamous Solme to Herod (Matthew 14: 6-11). There are even some instances where icon may only have John’s head on a platter. Such an icon is located to the left of the tabernacle in a picture that I took in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Desjarlais, Alberta.

Head of St. John the Baptist – St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Desjarlais, AB

There are a great many Ukrainian churches in Canada that have St. John the Baptist as their patron which is evidence of how greatly he is revered. Of course it is not just Ukrainians that venerate him and there are many countries, provinces, states, and towns throughout the world that claim St. John the Baptist as their patron. In Canada, he is the patron saint of both Newfoundland and Quebec. Also, the cities of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and St. John, New Brunswick, are both named after him.