John isn’t exactly a funny name to us but when St. John the Baptist was born, his relatives were scratching their heads over it.
“Where did that come from? Nobody else in the family has that name.”
“Elizabeth dear, shouldn’t the boy be named after his father? After all, he is your first.”
“And at your age, probably your last.”
But it was God who had named St. John the Baptist and when God names someone, it is because he is setting the person apart for a special mission, as was the case with Abraham, Peter, Paul, and Our Lord Jesus himself.
God set John apart long before his busybody relatives came along. Seven centuries before the birth of the Messiah, John’s mission as the forerunner was foretold in the books of Malachi and Isaiah:
Now I am sending my messenger —
he will prepare the way before me;
And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple;
The messenger of the covenant whom you desire —
see, he is coming! says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)
A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! (Isaiah 40:3)
As God set John apart for this mission to prepare the way for the Messiah, he also prepared him for it. The name tells you how. In Hebrew, the name John is Yochanan, which means “graced by God.” Yo is an abbreviated form of God’s name; Chanan is “endowed” or “graced.” This is not just some nice sentiment. It is a statement of fact: God graced John. God sanctified John, preparing him for his prophetic mission to come, and it happened when his cousin Jesus paid him a visit while they were both as yet unborn.
During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:39-45)
This explains why St. John the Baptist figures so prominently on the Eastern calendar. Not only is his death commemorated (Aug. 29), as is the case with every other saint, but his birth is celebrated as well. The only other births that are celebrated are Our Lord’s, because he is God and the source of all holiness, and his Blessed Mother’s, because she was conceived without sin, and was set apart by God to bear his Son and made “full of grace” from the moment of her conception.
The East does not miss an opportunity to praise St. John the Baptist. Going in the order of his life, there is his miraculous conception to the extremely old Sts. Zechariah and Elizabeth, his purification on the feast of the Visitation, and then his birth.
Bigger than all of those is Jan. 7, the Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner. A synaxis is the day after a major feast which involves that particular saint. In this case, that feast is Theophany on Jan. 6, which is the Baptism of Our Lord in the Eastern Rite. Then there is his beheading, and then two separate feasts each commemorating the finding of his head and relic.
If all those feast days aren’t enough, there are numerous icons of St. John the Baptist found in Eastern Rite churches all testifying to the magnitude of this saint. But it isn’t just men saying, “Hey, look at John.” Our Lord himself testified to his greatness:
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)
What was this great man like? We know he lived in the desert at a young age, eating locusts and honey, which is probably the only way even he could get them to go down. We know that he preached penance and lead by example. We know that he rebuked the king and was no respecter of persons. But the greatest thing about him had to be his humility.
John could have suffered with pride. He was a very dynamic figure. People listened to him, followed him, admired him. He could have gloried in his greatness, like Lucifer the angel, and forgotten that it was God who gave it to him and that all of it was for God’s purposes. But instead he made the ultimate act of self-renunciation and gave all of his followers over to Jesus.
John answered and said, “No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said [that] I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens to him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:27-30)
Later, John would lose his life for telling King Herod that his marriage to his brother’s wife, while his brother still lived, was sinful and invalid and a scandal to the people. Herod respected John for speaking truth to power but the wife connived to get John executed. As another testament to his humility, he would die over a triviality, as a reward for a dance, a frivolous promise that the king made to a teenager.
That martyrdom as everything else about St. John the Baptist prefigured that of Our Lord, who died a humiliating death, naked and in public, as a common criminal.
John’s whole purpose in life was to prepare the way for the Lord. For that mission, in all its parts, God would set him apart, prepare him, and make him worthy as his name “graced by God” attests.