Solemnity: Liturgical Color: White or Gold
“Dies natalis” means “birthday” or “anniversary” in Latin. But for early Christians, “dies natalis” referred to a martyr’s date of death and its subsequent commemoration in the Church’s liturgy, most typically through the assigning of a feast day. Most saints, martyrs or otherwise, are commemorated on, or near, the date of their death, the date their body was transferred to its final resting place, or on another significant date in their lives—date of ordination, coronation as pope, consecration as nun, etc… Besides Christ Himself, only two saints’ birthdays are commemorated liturgically. The Virgin Mary’s on September 8th, exactly nine months after the Feast of her Immaculate Conception; and St. John the Baptist’s on June 24th, today’s feast. Saint Mary and Saint John were both sanctified, or made holy, before they first opened their eyes to the light or ever gulped a breath of fresh air. A long span of years did not turn them into saints. God made them holy from the start. So we commemorate their lives from the start, from their birthdays.
Only the Gospel of Saint Luke tells us the details of John’s birth. John’s mom and dad were Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were beyond the age for having children. But Zechariah, a priest who served in the temple in Jerusalem, was told one night by the Archangel Gabriel that Elizabeth would give birth to a boy they must name John. Zechariah was dumbfounded. Literally, when he disbelieved this annunciation, he was rendered speechless until the child’s birth. When his speech was finally restored, a torrent of praise gushed out in the canticle known as the Benedictus. It is prayed as part of the Breviary every single day at morning prayer by hundreds of thousands of priests and nuns the world over. Zechariah’s prayer of praise lives on.
The celebration of the nativity of John the Baptist is perhaps the oldest liturgical feast day in all Christendom, much older than the Feast of Christmas itself. It was at one time celebrated with three distinct Masses—vigil, dawn, and daytime—just like Christmas still is. The beheading of John, celebrated on August 29th, is of equally ancient origin. The oldest liturgical books even, incredibly, indicate that there was once a liturgical commemoration of the conception of John the Baptist celebrated nine months prior to his birth, on September 24th.
Today’s feast is placed three months after the Annunciation, on March 25th, because that gospel scene tells us that Elizabeth, John’s mother, was six months pregnant at the time. Three more months take us to June 24th. (The one day discrepancy between March 25th and June 24th is an accident of counting. If December and June each had thirty one days there would be no discrepancy.) Three related feast days line up beautifully: March 25th, the Annunciation; June 24th, the birth of John the Baptist; December 25th, the birth of Christ. John’s birth foretells Christ’s birth. Although the historical chronology may not be exact, the dates show the theological interconnection among the three feasts.
All parents are naturally curious to discover the sex of their child in utero. Some allow themselves to be told the sex; others wait in suspense. Elizabeth and Zechariah were told by a winged messenger of God Himself that they would have a boy. That little boy grew to be a man, a great man, who accepted death rather than swallow his words criticizing the powerful king Herod. John ran ahead of Christ, clearing the ground so that the Lord’s pathway would be clear. This forerunner baptized the Christ, preached and prophesied like the Christ, fasted and prayed like the Christ, and died for the truth like the Christ. But he did not rise from the dead like the Christ. There is only one Easter. We rejoice at Saint John the Baptist’s birth, because what followed merits rejoicing. We rejoice at his birth, because we rejoice at the great and generous God who intervenes in our lives, who discovers us before we discover Him.
May the birth of Saint John the Baptist deepen our love for all unborn babies, who must be given the chance to grow, to live, and to become the great men and women God invites them to be. God respected the laws of human biology when intervening in history. May we follow His example of seeing every child, every life, as a gift.
THE birth of St. John was foretold by an angel of the Lord to his father, Zachary, who was offering incense in the Temple. It was the office of St. John to prepare the way for Christ, and before he was born into the world he began to live for the Incarnate God. Even in the womb he knew the presence of Jesus and of Mary, and he leaped with joy at the glad coming of the son of man. In his youth he remained hidden, because He for Whom he waited was hidden also. But before Christ’s public life began, a divine impulse led St. John into the desert; there, with locusts for his food and haircloth on his skin, in silence and in prayer, he chastened his own soul. Then, as crowds broke in upon his solitude, he warned them to flee from the wrath to come, and gave them the baptism of penance, while they confessed their sins. At last there stood in the crowd One Whom St. John did not know, till a voice within told him that it was his Lord. With the baptism of St. John, Christ began His penance for the sins of His people, and St. John saw the Holy Ghost descend in bodily form upon Him. Then the Saint’s work was done. He had but to point his own disciples to the Lamb, he had but to decrease as Christ increased. He saw all men leave him and go after Christ. “I told you,” he said, “that I am not the Christ. The friend of the Bridegroom rejoiceth because of the Bridegroom’s voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled.” St. John had been cast into the fortress of Machærus by a worthless tyrant whose crimes be had rebuked, and he was to remain there till he was beheaded, at the will of a girl who danced before this wretched king. In this time of despair, if St. John could have known despair, some of his old disciples visited him. St. John did not speak to them of himself, but he sent them to Christ, that they might see the proofs of His mission. Then the Eternal Truth pronounced the panegyric of the Saint who had lived and breathed for Him alone: “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist”
Reflection.—St. John was great before God because he forgot himself and lived for Jesus Christ, Who is the source of all greatness. Remember that you are nothing; your own will and your own desires can only lead to misery and sin. Therefore sacrifice every day some one of your natural inclinations to the Sacred Heart of Our Lord, and learn little by little to lose yourself in Him.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.