John the Baptist, the prophet, and forerunner of Jesus, was the son of elderly parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and was related to Jesus on his mother’s side. His birth is celebrated six months before Christmas Day, since, according to Luke, Elizabeth became pregnant six months before the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary.
John figures prominently in all four Gospels, but the account of his birth is given only in the Gospel according to Luke. His father, Zechariah, a priest of the Temple at Jerusalem, was struck speechless because he doubted a vision foretelling John’s birth. When his speech was restored, Zechariah uttered a canticle of praise, the Benedictus, which is one of the canticles in the Daily Office.
John lived ascetically in the desert. He was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt, and ate locusts and wild honey. He preached repentance, and called upon people to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom and of the Messiah, baptizing his followers to signify their repentance and new life. Jesus himself was baptized by John in the Jordan.
John had many followers, some of whom became Jesus’ disciples. Because of his denunciation of the sins of Herod, especially Herod’s incestuous marriage, John incurred the enmity of Herodias, Herod’s wife, and was put in prison. Through Herodias’ plotting with Salome, her daughter, Herod was led to promise a gift to Salome, who demanded John’s head. John was thereupon executed.
John is remembered during Advent as a prophet, and at Epiphany as the baptizer of Jesus. The Gospel according to John quotes the Baptist as saying to his followers that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and prophesying, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).