Our Life in Christ

Our Life In Christ 

The Conception of St. John the Baptist – September 23, 2021

by Fr. Jonathan Cholcher

The conception of St. John the Baptist is commemorated on September 23 in accordance with the details recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. John’s father Zachariah, a Jewish priest “of the division of Abijah” (v.5), was serving in the Jerusalem temple, and “his lot fell to burn incense…the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense” (vv.9, 10). Thus Zachariah was serving as high priest on the Day of Atonement (Heb., Yom Kippur), the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish feast-day calendar (cf. Lev. 16:13; 23:27). The “seventh month” corresponds to our month of September.

The fifteenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar is the Feast of Tabernacles (or, Booths; Heb., Sukkoth) culminating after a week’s celebration “on the eighth day…the final day…a rest” (Lev. 23:36, 39). The Feast of Tabernacles is both a festival of harvest and of remembrance that after their exodus from Egypt the Israelites lived in booths in the wilderness (Lev. 23:39, 43). This feast coming to completion on the twenty-third day of the seventh month is a contemplation of the fruits of the Promised Land and the protection of God in order to finish the journey there. John’s conception on this final day summarizes his calling as the last of the prophets, the Forerunner, announcing the immanent arrival of the Word made flesh, the Savior Jesus Christ, who “dwelt (lit., tabernacled) among us” leading us to the Kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 11:13; Lk. 1:76; Jn. 1:6-9, 14).

In the twentieth year of Constantine’s reign (326), he sent his mother Helena to Jerusalem the venerate the Holy Places and find the locations of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. Digging through the rubble Helena came upon three crosses, one containing three nails in the middle of the other two. A dying woman was suddenly healed when one of the crosses touched her, and Patriarch Macarius thus identified the True Cross venerating and exalting it publicly. When he raised the Cross for all to see, the crowd exclaimed: Kyrie eleison! (Lord, have mercy!), the origin of our Feast today.

With the conception of St. John newly formed in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, the Church already begins to celebrate the fulfillment of his life’s work. “Today the fruit of prayer buds forth from a barren womb: John the Forerunner! Wilderness, give glory! Dance, all people! Behold, the herald of repentance begins to take flesh in his mother’s womb! Come, lovers of the feast! Let us exult in his glorious conception, crying out: You are greater than those born of women! Do not cease to intercede for those who faithfully honor your divine conception, that we may receive forgiveness of sins and great mercy!” (Lord, I Call verse).

John’s father Zachariah was stuck mute because he did not believe the words of the angel Gabriel telling him that he would have a son to “go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah” turning the hearts of the Israelites to the Lord in repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord (Lk. 1:13f.). Yet after John’s birth (June 24), circumcision, and naming on the eighth day, Zachariah’s tongue was loosed and he prophesied concerning his new son’s role welcoming the coming of the Savior (Lk. 1:67f.). Zachariah had nine months to contemplate in silence his and the son of his old age’s unique place within God’s plan of salvation for the world. Likewise, his wife Elizabeth, John’s mother, who “hid herself for five months” (Lk. 1:24), was given a personally intimate sign of her and her son’s calling as six month-old unborn John leapt in her womb when a newly pregnant Virgin Mary greeted her bearing Christ within her womb (Lk. 1:39-45).

Thus we celebrate this conception so closely connected with our Lord’s conception (March 25; nine months later) as the beginning of the final fulfillment of our salvation in Christ Jesus the promised Savior. The conception of St. John is proof of God’s faithfulness to His promises given His faithful people, and ultimately it demonstrates the unique and unrepeatable importance of every single human being beginning at the moment of conception. “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…Your eyes saw me when I was unformed, and all men shall be written in Your book; they shall be formed day by day” (Ps. 138[139]:14, 16)

In His omnipotence and foreknowledge, God knows everything that will happen before it takes place, and this is especially true in the affairs of human beings created in the image and likeness of God to live with God, by His original design, in the everlasting life of His uncreated Kingdom. We can forfeit that life by turning away from God in disobedience and self-love, but not by God’s intention. The conception of St. John was not merely a chemical reaction as modern science devoid of godliness would explain it, but the creation of God. The conception of St. John and his subsequent existence lived in conformity to the will of God shows that we too can realize our potential in God’s eternal plan by clinging to Christ, leading to Christ, and living for Christ Jesus. “What kind of child will this be?” (Lk. 1:66). As with John, the answer is realized within a godly and loving family as with Zachariah and Elizabeth, not flawless, but humble, faithful, and aware of God’s plan of salvation.

In the barrenness of our everyday life God gives us the gift of life for His kingdom (Lk. 1:18, 25). At its very inception, we are to recognize the gift of life and specifically relate it to God’s plan of eternal life in His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ the God-man. Like John even in his mother’s womb, we begin to understand our reason for existence and give thanks to God for our presence here lived by the endurance of faith in Christ.