John the Baptist was born into a priestly Jewish family several months before the birth of Jesus. Events of his life and teaching are known from accounts in all four Gospels and in the writings of the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. John’s birth was predicted miraculously to Zechariah and Elizabeth, as is recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. At his birth the aged Zechariah sang the hymn of praise, the Benedictus, the traditional Gospel canticle at Morning Prayer (at Lauds in the medieval Daily Office).
John lived in the wilderness of Judea, near the Jordan River, and about the year 29 John began to preach a call to repentance and baptismal washing to enact that repentance. He gathered a group of disciples about him, from whom Jesus drew his first disciples: Andrew, and probably Simon Peter and John.
In the course of his preaching, John the Baptist denounced the immoral life of the Herodian rulers, and Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, had him arrested an imprisoned, perhaps in the huge fortress of Machaerus, which Herod the Great had built in the wilderness east of the Dead Sea. It was there that herod Antipas had John beheaded. The narrative of his death has been told many times over in music, art, and drama as well as in the lessons and devotions of the Church.
Saint John the Baptist was highly regarded by the early Christians, and the Eastern Churches especially have accorded him an important place in their prayers and worship. The Eastern Orthodox Churches commemorate the Old Testament prophets, of whom John was the last and greatest. In the West, the preparatory proclamation of John is a focus of the Second and Third Sundays in Advent, and he is also honored on the First Sunday after the Epiphany as the baptizer of Jesus. The commemoration of his death is observed in many sanctoral calendars on August 29. At the time of the Reformation, the Lutheran churches and the Church of England retained the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist in their sanctoral calendars, and a few (as also the 1662 Prayer Book) retained the day of his martyrdom.
Saint Augustine in the fourth century noted John’s declaration about himself and Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) and related it to this midsummer feast after which the days decrease in length.
adapted from the New Book of Festivals and Commemorations
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The First Lesson
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
You have been gracious to your land, O LORD, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.
You have withdrawn all your fury *
and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.
Restore us then, O God our Savior; *
let your anger depart from us.
Will you be displeased with us for ever? *
will you prolong your anger from age to age?
Will you not give us life again, *
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your mercy, O LORD, *
and grant us your salvation.
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
The Second Lesson
On the Sabbath day [Paul and his companions] went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said:
“Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’
“Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation.
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
The Lessons and Gospel are taken from the English Standard Version Bible. The Collect and Psalm are taken from the Book of Common Prayer (1979).
The icon of Saint John the Baptist is taken from Aidan Hart’s gallery of icons and is reproduced here with his generous permission.