Saint Maximus, Bishop of Turin in Italy – Two sermons on the Birthday of Saint John the Baptist.
Sermon 5. On the Birthday of Saint John the Baptist.
1. In praise of the holy and most blessed John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate today, I do not know what is the most important thing that we should preach – that he was wonderfully bom or more wonderfully slain. For he was bom as a prophecy and murdered for truth; by his birth he announced the coming of the Savior and by his death he condemned the incest of Herod. For this holy and righteous man, w ho was bom in an uncommon way as the result of a promise, merited from God that he should depan this world by an uncommon death, that he should lay aside his body, which he had received as a gift from the Lord, by confessing the Lord. 2. Therefore John did everything by the will of God, since he was born and died for the sake of God’s work.
Let us briefly go over the events relating to his birth. When his father Zechariah and his mother Elizabeth were worn out by their advanced age and were not enjoying the fruit of sons, and the best time for begetting children for themselves had gone by, so that the very desire to raise up offspring was lacking to them, suddenly they arc given a promise by an angel, and holy Gabriel announces that John is to be bom, saying: Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for behold, your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall conceive and bear a son (Luke 1, 13). Your prayer has been heard, he says. From this we understand that Zechariah’s righteousness begot John by prayer rather than Elizabeth’s old age did by the act of procreation. From this, I say, we understand that supplication and not pleasure brought forth John. For when the maternal womb had grown cold as a result of old age and the enfeebled members of the body had already lost the power of fecundity, contrary to the body’s incapability and contrary to the sterility of the womb, by Zechariah’s prayers Elizabeth’s belly swelled and she conceived John not by nature but by grace. It was necessary for that holy child to be bom in this way – he who was begotten not so much by embraces as by prayers.
3. Yet, brethren, we ought not to be so astonished that John merited such grace in his birth. For the precursor and forerunner of Christ ought to have had something similar to the birth of the Lord, the Savior. And indeed the Lord was begotten of a virgin and John of a sterile woman, the one of an unstained girl and the other of an already exhausted old woman. John’s birth, then, also has something of the glorious and the wondrous. For although a matron’s bringing forth would seem to be less noble than a virgin’s, yet as we look up to Mary for having brought forth as a virgin we also w onder at Elizabeth for having done so as an old woman. Indeed, I think that this fact contains a certain mystery – that John, who was a figure of the Old Testament, should have been born of the already cold blood of an old woman, while the Lord, who would preach the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, came forth from a woman in the flower of glowing youth. For Mary, conscious of her virginity, marvels at the fruit hidden in her belly, while Elizabeth, conscious of her old age, blushes that her womb is heavy with what she has conceived; thus the Evangelist says: She hid herselffor five months (Luke 1, 24). How wonderful it is, though, that the same archangel Gabriel performs an office with respect to each birth! He comforts the unbelieving Zechariah and encourages the believing Mary. I le lost his voice because he doubted, but she, because she believed immediately, conceived the saving Word.
4. This too seems unworthy to pass over in silence in praise of John – that, not yet born, already he prophesies and, while still in the enclosure of his mother’s womb, confesses the coming of Christ with movements of joy since he could not do so with his voice. For Elizabeth says to holy Mary: As soon as you greeted me, the child in my womb exulted for joy (Luke 1, 44). John exults, then, before he is born, and before his eyes can see what the world looks like he can recognize the Lord of the world with his spirit. In this regard I think that the prophetic phrase is apropos which says: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you (Jer. 1, 5). Thus we ought not to marvel that, after he was put in prison by Herod, from his confinement he continued to announce Christ to his disciples, when even confined in the womb he preached the same Lord by his movements.
The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, trans. by B. Ramsey, New York 1989, p. 22-24.
Sermon 6. Another Sermon on the Birthday of the Same Saint John.
1. As we are about to celebrate the birthday of Saint John the Baptist today, I would like to be quiet and with silence set bounds to my labor and to my inexperience, but the power itself of his name does not permit me to be still. For the very sounding of his name draws out the secrets of our heart and unlooses what is hidden in our silence, and what is brushed over in concealment is pressed into the open in wonderment. For if even his father Zechariah received back his voice when he named him, how much more are we promised abundant speech when we praise him! And if his father’s mouth opened when he was born in the world, how much more is our mouth fruitful when it is opened for Christ! For when Zechariah his father was punished with silence by the angel Gabriel because of his disbelief in his birth and for a long time mutely veiled the secrets of his mind with his wordlessness, when John his son was born and among his neighbors there was concern about what name he should be given, writing tablets were offered to his father so that he himself could put down the name that he had decided upon, so that he might express in writing what he could not in speech. Then, in a wonderful manner, when he had taken the tablets in order to begin w riting, his tongue was loosened, the written word gave way to speech, and he did not write “John” but spoke it. Consider, then, the merit of the holy Baptist: he gave his father back his voice, he restored the faculty of speech to the priest. Consider, I say, his merit: John unloosed the mouth that the angel had bound. What Gabriel had closed the little child unlocked, although he himself was also an angel, as it is written of him: Behold, I send my angel before your face (Mark 1, 2). Think of John and of how great the pow er of his name is, so that the mentioning of it restored the voice to his mute father and the devout priest to his people! For w hen his tongue was silent he had neither son nor ministry, but when John is born the father suddenly becomes a prophet or priest, speech attains its use, love receives an offspring, the office recognizes the priest. Since such is the power of his name, then, we who are about to speak of it cannot be silent even if we want to be. John himself, in fact, is called the voice of one crying (John 1, 23). How could anyone praise his voice and be silent? How could anyone admire his outcry and be still? For he himself says of himself: I am the voice of one crying in the desert (John 1, 23). Notice what he says, for he docs not simply say: I am the voice, but rather: the voice of one crying. It is for the sake of promoting faith that his voice penetrates cars and his outcry shakes hearts, that his voice foretells the kingdom and his outcry threatens judgment.
2. Great, therefore, is John, to w’hose greatness even the Savior bears witness when he says: Among those born of women there is none greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11, 11). He excels all, he outranks everyone, he comes before the prophets, he surpasses the patriarchs, and w hoever is born of woman is inferior to John. But wre ought to inquire carefully why the Lord said: among those born of women, rather than: “among the sons of men there is none greater” and so forth, since as a matter of fact women are not able to have children without men. He said this, though, because the offspring of women are more numerous than those of men, for there is a son of a woman who is not the son of a man. Holy Mary begot a son who did not have a man for a father. The Lord is the son of a woman and not the son of a man, as the Apostle says: begotten of a woman, begotten under the law (Gal. 4, 4), so that He who has a mother on earth might have a Father in heaven. Therefore in praise of John his procreation by the more fruitful sex is mentioned so that no one’s birth might be distinguished from his. But someone might say: “If John is greater than anyone born of woman, is he even greater than the Savior?” Perish the thought! For John was bom of a woman, but Christ of a virgin; the one was brought forth from a corruptible womb, the other was begotten from the flower of an unsullied womb. When the generation of the Lord is considered along with the birth of John, then, let the Lord not falsely seem to share the human condition.
The Sermons of St. Maximus of Turin, trans. by B. Ramsey, New York 1989, p. 24-26.