Jun 24; Solemnity of St. John the Baptist

The Prelude to the IncarnationJohn Baptist

Birthdays are wonderful opportunities for gatherings, parties, great meals and celebrations. One could also find a Christian reason for celebrating your birthday – giving thanks to God for the gift of life. But did you know that it’s a pre-Christian practice? Such celebrations were meant to ward off the evil spirits the pagans believed lurked around the person on the anniversary of his birth. In fact, historically, many Christians in earlier times didn’t celebrate birthdays because of that link to paganism. Ironically, it was on the occasion of Herod Antipas’ birthday, that the daughter of Herodias, his brother’s wife whom he had illicitly married, requested for the head of St John the Baptist. The birthday of a secular political ruler became the occasion of the martyrdom of a saint.

But today, we take a little departure from the temporal cycle, the cycle of seasons, our Sunday liturgy in ordinary time and venture into a celebration of the sanctoral cycle of the liturgical calendar – a feast of a saint, a birthday no less. There has been a long established custom since the early Christian centuries of commemorating each martyr annually on the date of his or her death, or birth into heaven, a date therefore referred to in Latin as the martyr's dies natalis (“day of birth”). So, it’s not that the earthly birthday of a saint is not important, but the Church chooses to celebrate the death day of the saint to mark his or her entrance into heaven. What could be greater than a long, fruitful, and happy life? The answer simply is Eternal Life! The reason for this is when the Church celebrates the feasts of saints, it celebrates the victory of the Paschal event, that is, the eternal life that has been won by these men and women by virtue of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To this rule there are two notable exceptions, the birthdays of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of St. John the Baptist, not counting the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas.

Why the exception? Well, in the case of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception provides the answer. She received the gift of salvation not at the moment of her death, but she among all women and the whole human race, was singularly privileged to be freed from original sin from the first moment of her existence in her mother’s womb. Thus the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is a far more important feast than the Memorial Feast of her nativity. What about St John? Well, for St John the day of his birth, the day on which he began this mortal life is likewise sacred. The reason for this, is that it comes from the traditional belief that John was freed from original sin at the moment when his mother met the Blessed Virgin in the event of the Visitation. Saint Augustine mentioned this belief as a general tradition in the ancient Church. In any case, it is certain that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb” (Luke 1, 15) and, therefore, born without original sin.

How did we determine this date? More trivia but bear with me. Though scripture does not provide us with the dates, it does provide us with the length of months between one event and the other. The gospel of St Luke tells us that the birth of St John the Baptist comes three months after the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel told Our Lady that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. So that leaves us with a six months difference in age. Accordingly, the Church celebrates his natural birth by a festival of his “nativity,” assigned exactly six months before the nativity of Christ, since John was six months older than the Lord. The purpose of these Feasts is not to celebrate the exact dates of these events, but simply to commemorate them in an interlinking way.

The birth of Jesus celebrated at Christmas coincides with an astronomical phenomenon, the Winter Solstice, as the Sun begins to “increase” in day light and the day lights grow longer each day. The birthday of St John the Baptist, on the other hand, coincides with the Summer Solstice, as the Sun begins to “decrease” in day light and day lights become shorter. Summer Solstice has the longest day light and Winter Solstice has the shortest day light. These two great feasts fall on two days of great astronomical significance in regards to the movement of the sun, which affects the lamination and darkness of the earth. Thus, what St. John the Baptist says of his mission – is even reflected in nature – days become shorter after the feast of John the Baptist and days become longer after Christ’s birth – “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Except for Jesus, there is no other person that we get to know so intimately—from conception to death, and even what he wore and ate. No other saint in the New Testament is described so richly. The Baptist becomes like a member of the family because we witness very personal snapshots of his life. There is no Gospel that begins the story of Jesus' public ministry without first telling the reader about the life and mission of John the Baptist. The announcement of his birth and the event itself in the gospel of St Luke both made prominently parallel to the same occurrences in the life of Jesus. The reason for this parallel is because the Nativity of John the Baptist is the first joy sent down by God to the human race, the beginning of its deliverance from the power of the devil, sin and eternal death. In other words, today's feast anticipates the feast of Christmas. In a sense, then, we are celebrating the glorious prelude to Christ's incarnation today.

Our Lord called St John, the greatest of all those who had preceded him: “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John….” But St John would have agreed completely with what Jesus added: “yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). The “least in the Kingdom” was obviously a reference to Himself – Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who chose to empty Himself of His divine stature, to assume the role of a lowly slave, is the “least in the Kingdom.”

John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and of the human condition, and that way is Christ Jesus himself. As we celebrate this Solemnity, our testimonies too must join that of the Baptist, who points to Christ and away from himself. Christ ‘must increase and I must decrease’ must be a constant life commitment! In a culture that idolises the subjective self, where man has enthroned himself at the centre of his universe, the prophetic witness of John the Baptist reminds us once again that even the greatest among us must fall on our knees to acknowledge the One who is greater. Christ must increase and I must decrease.

As we pay heed to the voice of the Baptist, we are reminded to also heed the voice of Mother Church who points us in the same direction, to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote: “We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, ‘because it is only the voice of a man.’ And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is ‘not worthy to untie the shoelaces of its Lord who goes on before it.”