John was a kinsman of Jesus Christ. Their mothers were related, maybe cousins. Luke’s Gospel tells us he was born under miraculous circumstances, for Elizabeth, his mother, was really too old to conceive. His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and when it was his turn to enter the Holy of holies in the Temple with the prayers of the people, he was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him that his wife would conceive soon after Zechariah’s duties in the Temple finished and he returned home. The baby was to be called John, he was to live an ascetic life, dedicated to God, and he would prepare the people for the coming Messiah. Because Zechariah doubted the angel he was struck dumb until the baby was born.
John was an unusual person even by the standards of first century Palestine, and today he would probably have been thought of as a hippy or a drop-out; but the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the Celtic hermits would have had no problem recognising him for who he was. When he was old enough he went off by himself into the desert to the east of the Jordan River. He wore clothes of camel skin, fastened by a leather belt, and his food was locusts and wild honey. He was one of the most extreme ascetics the world has ever known.
As with the desert and Celtic saints of later times, people sought out John to hear what he had to say, and he gave words of advice and challenge to them all. Those who were prepared to work at changing their lives to follow God’s plan, he baptised in the Jordan, signifying a new start. When Jesus approached him to be baptised, John tried to dissuade him, but Jesus insisted that this would demonstrate that He was doing what was right in the eyes of God. It also signalled a new start for Jesus, as immediately afterwards He Himself set off into the desert to prepare for His public ministry.
It was through John that four of Jesus’ disciples came to know Him. Two of them, Andrew and, probably, Philip were disciples of John, who said about Jesus, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ Andrew introduced his brother Simon (nicknamed ‘Peter’ by Jesus) and Philip introduced Nathanael to Jesus. John and Jesus continued their ministries in parallel for a time, but John went further than usual in his attacks on those in authority. He condemned Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, for marrying his half brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who was also Herod’s niece. As a result, Herod had John thrown into prison in Galilee. Herodias really wanted John executed, but Herod at first refused because he was somewhat afraid of him, half believing some of the things John said, but unwilling to give up the benefits of his lifestyle. In addition, he was afraid of public opinion, for many people held that John was a prophet. He also enjoyed having conversations with John.
Eventually Herodias got her opportunity. It was Herod’s birthday and he held a great feast for the court and the leading men of Galilee. Salome, the daughter of Herodias and Philip, came in and danced for the assembled company. She pleased them all so much that Herod asked her what she would like in reward – anything, up to half of the kingdom. The girl didn’t know what to ask for, and went to consult her mother. Immediately she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ Salome returned to Herod and asked for John’s head on a platter. Herod sent a guard to execute John in the prison and bring his head to the girl. What does one do with a human head on a platter? Salome took it to her mother. John’s disciples went and collected his body and gave it a respectful burial, but no-one knows what happened to the head.
There is no record of the date on which John died and his feast day was chosen because the Bible says he was six months older than Jesus, Midsummer Day being about six months before Christmas.
It was this day that the Norse rulers of the Isle of Man chose for their annual open-air parliament in the tenth century, when every freeman was summoned to a pagan rite, followed by a discussion of the laws by which they were governed. When they became Christian the pagan rite became a church service, and the site of the meeting was called St John’s. For nearly 300 years, from the end of the eleventh to the end of the thirteenth centuries, the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles incorporated the Western Isles, including Iona. Eventually the members of parliament were elected and they were the ones who decided on the laws, but all the freemen were still entitled to attend as spectators. This open-air parliament sitting still takes place on the Isle of Man today, but only the names of the laws are read out; the debates and votes take place indoors in Government Buildings in Douglas. Today everyone is counted free and no-one is barred from attending ‘Tynwald Day’ as it is known, but when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in place of the Julian, the date became July 5th.
Lord Jesus, as John was pleased to be a signpost to You, taking the humbler place, so teach me to humble myself and let my life be a signpost to You for those I meet. May Your law of love shine through all I am and do. Amen.