O Saint John, beautiful Baptist,
Thou wast the Forerunner of the Great Savior
I bow before thee, pray to thee
Help me overcome every affliction
I bow to thee, greatest of the prophets,
I kneel before thee and weep:
Share with me from thy heart a lion’s strength,
From thy spirit angelic purity…
(Traditional Serbian Song)
The feast of the Nativity of St. John, the Baptist of the Lord, is drawing closer. In the coming preparations for our patronal feastday, we certainly must also prepare spiritually to celebrate and await worthily him who declared the coming of Christ in human flesh and who was the preacher of repentance as the condition for our salvation. All of us are a bit a-tremble in face of the magnitude of the task before us. As a convent dedicated to St. John, we have a great responsibility as his disciples, who live under his protection and blessing. In our hearts we ask ourselves, how much have we emulated St. Johnin our own lives, continuing his holy work, his holy fight? Or have we been neglectful, overburdened by our own selves and the passions that we have no desire to renounce? Do we also cry in our hearts for repentance, just as he thunderously preached? Are we ready to fulfill all of God’s justice, or are we like the accursed Herodias, always ready to indulge our cruel passions?
We wonder what kind of man that must have been, whose hand blessed the God-Man Himself. His body was dried up from fasting, feet wounded by sharp stones and burning sands. His courageous heart only longed to fulfill the Lord’s commandments, crying out for repentance with every beat. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
All tremble before the greatness of our Saint John: His austere and piercing gaze. His prophet’s long hair, twisted into heavy plaits which fall onto his chest and shoulders, which the dry, desert wind blows, along with the strands of his beard. Strong in stature, though his bones and joints are visible. Regal, tall, if a bit stooped. A body tormented by such extreme ascetic labors as surpass human nature. Fiery zeal and burning prayer. Rough, short clothing of camel’s hair that wounds his tanned body, girded with a leather belt. Hands thin, as if from them all that is human has been wrung out. They cannot serve in earthly labor. Blessing, baptizing, and fulfilling all righteousness, they will touch the Head of Him Who is to come.
“Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand…”
From his youth he dwelt in the wilderness alone. The wilderness became his mother and reared him in her harsh bosom, shielding him from the fleshly effeminacy that the world offered him. He lived in the cave that had sheltered him from the bestial Herod since he was a babe. He spent his days in fasting, prayer and conversation with God. He fed on the pods of desert trees and bitter wild honey; these, however, did not fortify him, but rather the power of God that passed into His faithful servant through them. It is quite appropriate that in iconography St. John is depicted with wings, angelic wings, because he truly lived on earth as if fleshless. Through his obedience to God, freedom from the world and men, along with his lack of care for his bodily life, St. John entirely resembled the angels in the heavens, though he was only a man.
St. John’s mission, his service on earth, was to be the voice crying in the wilderness that exhorted people to prepare the ways of the Lord. The historical Jordan wilderness, from which this glorious forerunner trumpeted his message of repentance to all of mankind, also represents the wilderness of our souls, which have been dried up by sins as in a drought. His is the admonishing voice of our conscience whenever we do something against the Lord’s commandments. His is that voice crying in us which ceaselessly calls us to repentance, which urges us to prepare the ways of the Lord, to make His paths straight, to bring forth fruits of repentance. Yes: he seeks the fruits of repentance, but do we truly bear those fruits, or does all for us end with empty words? Do we answer when we hear his voice within, or are we ready always to offer hundreds of excuses, or like the miserable Herodias, to trample all in our path for the sake of gratifying our vanity and base pleasures? How many times has St. John won out within us, and how many times has the wretched Herodias? That is the unending battle between good and evil, between reason and seething blood.
Many questions torture our souls; many doubts and uncertainties fill our hearts whenever we reflect on this great, glorious Prophet and Forerunner of the Lord. His most glorious birth we will celebrate in our dear Mikulj wilderness that, alas, cannot be compared to that in which St. John lived. Still, in our hearts and souls we can find that very Jordan wilderness, inasmuch as we make an effort to emulate the holy work and labors of St. John. In every heart can be found the pods of obedience to God and the bitter honey of holy repentance if we unceasingly recall his life to ourselves. May the Lord preserve all of us and direct our steps along the footsteps of St. John, so that we unworthy ones as well, sitting at his feet, may find repentance like the priceless pearl in the hidden deserts of our souls.
The holy hierarchical Liturgy that will be led by His Grace Bishop Akakije at Mikulj rock in the Novi Stjenik Monastery on the Nativity of the Forerunner, June 24 (July 7 NS) will begin at 9:30 AM. All are invited to contribute with their presence to the magnificence of this great feast, the day on which was born he who shows us the way to salvation through repentance.