Every January we celebrate one of the great feasts of the Church: Theophany, the Feast of Lights, our Lord’s Baptism. Central to that feast is the role of our beloved patron, St. John the Baptist. St. John lived in strict asceticism in the Palestinian desert. He foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Christ whom he baptized in the Jordan River. We commemorate St. John the Baptist on January 7, the day after Theophany, which is our parish Name Day.
St. John is known as the Forerunner, because he announced Jesus’ coming. For this reason he is also considered the greatest–and the last–of the Old Testament prophets. All of the prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah, who would redeem the people of Israel. However St. John is the greatest of these prophets because Jesus Christ came in his own lifetime.
St. John’s ministry was to prepare the way for the Lord. He preached a baptism of repentance, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) Through repentance the people could be cleansed of their sins. In this way St. John prepared them for the arrival of the Messiah: “Behold,I send My messenger before your face, who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” (Mark 1:2-3) As the Lord’s messenger, St. John is often depicted with angel’s wings. (The Greek word, angelos, means both “messenger” and “angel”.)
Our beloved saint’s image can be found in many places in our church, since he is our patron: on both sides of the iconostasis and also in the narthex. Furthermore, in (almost) every Divine Liturgy we commemorate him by singing his hymn.
However, besides the icons and hymns, what does it mean to have a patron saint of a parish? Every Orthodox church is named after a saint or an important feast day, just as every Orthodox Christian is given the name of a saint at baptism. How is St. John the Baptist special in our lives, since our church bears his name?
As our patron saint it means that St. John is a special protector and intercessor for our community. His prayers guide us and safeguard us from harm. He watches over us more closely.
Yet our relationship with St. John should not be one-sided. His closeness to our community can be strengthened by our own devotion to him. He is someone to whom we should pray regularly: for the protection of our families and our church community. We sing his hymn each Sunday; but we can say the hymn as a prayer each day, or add a simple prayer like, “Holy St. John the Baptist, pray for us!”
This is truly what it means to have a patron saint: a special relationship with one of God’s holy servants, who can pray for us, and whom we can seek in times of need. In this new year, let us pray to St. John all the more fervently, singing his hymn and asking for his intercession:
“The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for thee, O Forerunner; for thou hast proved to be truly more venerable than the Prophets, since thou wast granted to baptize in the stream Him Whom they proclaimed. Wherefore, having contested for the truth, thou didst rejoice to announce the good tidings even to those in Hades: that God hath appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting to us great mercy.” (Apolytikion for St. John the Baptist)
Through the prayers of St. John the Baptist, may you have a blessed New Year!