The Orthodox Church venerates St. John the Baptist above almost every other saint, the exception being the Holy Theotokos Mary. This glory and honor which is directed to him is deserved. Among all the people who served God with all their heart, with all the fullness of their souls, St. John is the greatest, because God called him such. His entire calling rested in seeing that the One Who is God, our Lord Jesus Christ, grow more and more in the sight and consciousness of the people in his time. This was the singular purpose of St. John the Baptist’s life; this is why we call him the forerunner. He came and prepared the way for our Lord Jesus Christ.
The first thing said about St. John in the Gospel according to St. Mark is that he was a voice crying in the wilderness. Indeed, he was a voice, but he became the voice of God in his ministry. He and his calling were one; he was the voice of God thunderously sounding in the midst of the desert. Why was he in the desert? As you know, deserts are dry and desolate places. St. John was the voice in the desert, which symbolized the dryness and emptiness of human souls without God. He was in the desert, but he baptized with water. His baptism through repentance and water symbolized how human souls would be quenched at the coming of the Lord.
St. John the Baptist was also called “the friend of the bridegroom.” He so powerfully loved our Lord Jesus Christ that he sacrificed everything to be a servant to the love of Christ. As a good friend of the bridegroom, St. John never served Christ in a manner that detracted from Christ’s glory. We never find St. John interfering in Christ’s ministry. Rather, he said, “I must decrease and eventually become nothing so that Christ will increase.” Indeed, St. John’s disciples, who at one point followed him with great love and intensity, eventually became Christ’s disciples, like Andrew and John. As a good friend to Christ, St. John gave up everything even to the point of nonexistence in order for Christ to grow in the eyes of the people.
This self-sacrificial faith and love is most clear in the image we have of St. John the Baptist in prison awaiting death. He had no way to escape Herod and the machinations of the wicked women. He knew death was approaching, that his life was coming to an end, and so, in a moment, he sent his disciples to ask Christ whether He was the One everyone was waiting for. It is almost as though St. John the Baptist suffered a moment of weakness here; he wanted to make sure that this person for Whom he sacrificed his life is the One Who could reward him in eternity. He wanted to make sure. If Christ was the One, then everything St. John the Baptist did from his youth–the years of asceticism, preaching, self-mortification–would have been worthwhile. But what if Christ was not the One? Then his life would be in vain.
Having sent his disciples to Christ to ask the question, “Are You the One Who should come,” St. John the Baptist does not get a direct and comforting answer. Christ does not send him a message that says, “Yes, I am the One, go in peace!” Instead, our Lord answers him by quoting the prophecy from Isaiah that says the blind gain their sight, the lame walk, the dead are resurrected, and the poor proclaim the Gospel. Our Lord quotes all of these things from Isaiah in response to St. John the Baptist’s question, but then He adds one sentence from Himself: “Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me.” That was the response that St. John received from our Lord as he was awaiting death. Christ was telling him, “Believe to the end. Do not demand evidence, proof, or signs. Believe because you have heard the voice of the Lord.”
In the Old Testament, we oftentimes see prophets going through great spiritual struggles and asking God for support in their ministry. When the same thing happened to St. John in prison, the only support he received from our Lord was an admonishment to increase his faith. In His mercy and compassion, our Lord directed St. John to continue having an extremely strong faith and confidence in things that are unseen. And St. John obeyed. He finished his course. This is why he is the greatest among those born of women.
For us, this is an important lesson that we should learn today. Oftentimes, it happens that we go about our lives doing our best to live a life of Christian perfection and serve God. And then, in an instant, we are overcome by agony. “I have given up so much for God, but I don’t feel Him in my life. What if everything I am doing is in vain?” This is one way of looking at what happened to St. John the Baptist in prison. Despite St. John’s righteousness as the greatest born of women, our Lord Jesus Christ does not send him clear comfort. Could our Lord have simply sent a message to St. John in prison saying, “Yes, I am the One. You did a good job and you will be rewarded”? Of course, but He didn’t. Instead, he challenged St. John to open his heart to the prophecies in the Holy Scriptures: the blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise from the tombs. In other words, look for yourself and have faith. Search the Holy Scriptures and build your faith. This is our Lord’s message to us, as well, when we go through periods of faithlessness, doubt and anguish. The answer and clear comfort that we seek is all around us; we just have to open our eyes and recognize it.