Today, June 24, is the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist. The Church celebrates the births of only two individuals besides Jesus. They are the Blessed Mother on September 8 and St. John the Baptist on June 24. The Church also celebrates the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on August 29.
St. John the Baptist was the herald proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. All four Gospels depict him as something of a wild man, dressed in camel skins and eating locusts and honey. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and challenged the Jewish authorities who relied on their association with Abraham to confirm their righteousness before God. John was the first to recognize Jesus when He approached, proclaiming Him the Lamb of God. Even still, the Gospels recount that John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him if He was the one for whom they had been waiting, or if they awaited another. Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Lk 7:22). John would be arrested by King Herod for rebuking the king over having wed his brother’s wife. At the demand of his step-daughter, Herod had John beheaded.
The nativity of St. John is recorded only in the first chapter of The Gospel According to Luke. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, had not been blessed with children and are now getting up in years. Zechariah takes his turn serving in the Temple and receives a vision of an angel who tells him that Elizabeth will have a son. Incredulous, Zechariah is struck mute, yet Elizabeth is soon with child. During her pregnancy, Elizabeth is visited by her cousin, Mary, who has news of her own to share. Mary is pregnant, too, and as Elizabeth approaches, the baby in her womb, St. John the Baptist, leaps for joy. When her baby is born, they ask Elizabeth what name he shall be given, and she says “John.” Confused, they explain that this name has no history in the family, so they ask Zechariah. (This is one of the interesting “mistakes” of the Gospels, for they ask Zechariah by “making signs,” but Zechariah is mute, not deaf!). Zechariah writes down, “His name is John.” All are agog in wonderment! Zechariah’s voice is freed and he proclaims a canticle in praise of God. In this canticle, called “The Benedictus” because it begins, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel…,” and proclaimed each day in the Church’s morning prayer, Zechariah speaks to his son of his mission: ‘You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk 1:67-79).
St. John is born six months before his cousin, Jesus. One tradition for how the date of Christmas was chosen is that the date for the celebration of St. John’s birth was the earlier tradition, set in late June. Since Jesus was known to be born six months later, His feast was set for December.
The lesson of St. John the Baptist’s life, I think, is that we are all called to be heralds of the Messiah and the Good News of Jesus Christ. What good is it to be in possession of good news if that news is never proclaimed, never shared. The phrase, “speak the truth with passion” certainly applies to St. John the Baptist and serves as a challenge to us in this day of doubt among post-moderns that forgiveness of sins is necessary, and incredulity in anything other than what can be experienced by the senses.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.