Nativity of John the Baptist
So important is St. John the Baptist in the scheme of salvation that he has two feasts in the Christian Calendar his birth which is normally celebrated on 24th June and his martyrdom on 29th August. There are only three Feasts commemorating births – that of our Saviour Jesus Christ on Christmas Day.that of His Mother the Virgin Mary on the 8th September and that of John the Baptist on 24th June. These were the dates chosen by the Church from early times and are not taken to be the actual birthdays. Notice how the day chosen to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist is just three days after the Summer solstice and the days are getting shorter, the light is diminishing. By contrast the day chosen to commemorate our Saviour`s birth is just four days after the winter solstice as the daylight hours begin to increase. This reflects how the importance of John the Baptist`s mission was to decrease just as that of Jesus was to increase.
The miracle concerning the birth of John was almost as great as that of the Lord Jesus. His mother Elizabeth was a direct descendent of Aaron and father, Zechariah, a priest of the Temple in the line of Abijah. The early part of chapter 1 of St. Luke`s Gospel tells how Zechariah had been elected to offer incense in the sanctuary of the Lord when he was confronted with the Angel of the Lord and he was overcome with fear – terrified! However, Gabriel re-assured him telling him not to be afraid for Elizabeth his wife was to bear him a son whose name was to be called John. The couple were elderly and Elizabeth past child-bearing age and Zechariah did not believe what Gabriel told him. For his disbelief he was struck dumb until the child was born.
John is the link and boundary between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In his sermon No.293 St. Augustine of Hippo explains: `John, then, appears as a sort of boundary to which the Lord himself bears witness when he speaks of “the law and the prophets up until John the Baptist” Thus he represents times past and is the herald of the new era to come. As a representative of the past he is born of aged parents; as a herald of the new era, he is declared to be a prophet while still in his mother`s womb. For when yet unborn, he leapt in his mother`s womb at the arrival of blessed Mary. In that womb he had already been designated a prophet, even before he was born; it was revealed that he was to be Christ`s precursor, before they ever saw one another. These are divine happenings, going beyond the limits of our human frailty. Eventually he is born, he receives his name, his father`s tongue is loosened. See how these events reflect reality.`
Father Mario Attard, a Maltese Capuchin Friar, writes: `Another detail which touches my heart about John is that from his mother`s womb he started to live what he was to assert later on in his life: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30)…For John we could easily apply the words written in Jeremiah 1:5: `Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.` Even from Elizabeth`s womb John was the first one to be open to the joyous radiant presence of Jesus! Always, with John, there is the mark of true humility. We find St. Luke writing in the Acts of the Apostles 13 verses 24 and 25: `Before his (Jesus`s) coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, “What do you suppose that I am ? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.”
Today`s gospel reading from Luke 1, 57-66 and verse 80 tells of how Elizabeth`s neighbours and relations shared her joy when they heard of the Lord`s kindness to her and Zechariah in this gift of a child in their old age. No surprise that on the eighth day, the day of circumcision; the family and friends assumed that the child was to be called Zechariah after his priestly father. Elizabeth spoke up saying, `No! He is to be called John.` This was ratified by the mute Zechariah who wrote on a
writing tablet: `His name is John.` It was at that instant that his speech returned and he spoke and praised God. The incident was the talk of the hill country of Judea. Luke reminds us that the hand of the Lord was with the child John. We are told that the child grew up and his spirit matured. He lived out in the wilderness until the day he appeared openly to Israel.
There is much in a name and when a child is named prayer and deep thought should take place to discern God`s will. It is not just a matter of family tradition, choosing to be named after some celebrity or following a fashion. The name JOHN or YOHANAN in Hebrew means GOD IS GRACIOUS and so the name of John is perfectly correlated with the name of JESUS or YESHUA in Hebrew which means GOD WHO SAVES.
To return to Luke`s Gospel chapter 1 verse 16 “Many of the sons of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.” In the prologue of John`s Gospel chapter 1 we are shown how John was the one who bore witness to the Light of the World and we find “This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.” And in verses 19 to 23 we find this conversation recorded: “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and levites to ask him `Who are you ?` He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, `I am not the Messiah.` and they asked him `What then ? are you Elijah?` He said, “I am not.” `Are you a prophet ?` He answered, “No” then they said to him, `Who are you ? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself ?` He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord`” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Concerning John`s adult life we know little except that he lived an austere life living on locusts and wild honey and clothed in camel skin. He might well have been one of that group of ascetics, seeking to be close to God, known as Essenes who lived and prayed in the wilderness. Certainly John`s role was very clear to his mind. He is the precursor or forerunner, the one who prepares the way. Jesus is the Messiah and John is just the lamp but Jesus is the Light – the Light of the World and the Dawn of Salvation. John is the voice but Jesus is the eternal Word of God – the Word made flesh. Of what use is a lamp when the dawn comes ? Of what use is the voice if there is no Word ?
John`s main virtues are humility, courage and fidelity to his mission. He admitted time and time again that “someone greater than me is coming” and that he was “not worthy to untie the straps of His sandals.” His courage lay in the fact that he spoke the truth clearly and directly even denouncing the immorality of King Herod who had taken to himself his own brother`s wife! He was followed by many on the road to penitence, was greatly popular and thought by many to be the Messiah yet he did not succumb to any pressure or temptation. He just insisted that he was “a voice crying in the wilderness”. His final act of heroism was his martyrdom by being beheaded at the order of Herod.
John`s baptism was a baptism of repentance NOT the washing away of original sin but rather of preparing the way for One who would come baptizing “with water and the Holy spirit and fire” and as St. John records in his Gospel 1:31 “the reason why I came baptizing with water was that He might be made known to Israel.”
There is another reference to St. John the Baptist in St. John`s Gospel just four verses later: “The next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, `Look, here is the Lamb of God` The two disciples heard him say this and they followed Jesus.”
The Lamb of God is the One, Perfect Sacrifice for the Sins of the World.