Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!
Nativity of Saint John the Baptist—24 June AD 2007
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Ordinary of the Mass
Latin Text
English Text

    Today we celebrate the birthday of saint John the Baptist.  For the most part, the Church does not observe the birthdays of Her saints, but rather the day on which they died and entered into heaven.  Only our Lord’s, His blessed Mother’s, and Saint John’s birthdays have a place in the Church calendar.  And of those three, only today and Christmas are celebrated for two days, having what we call a “vigil” the day before.

    Today and Christmas have an interesting relationship in the calendar.  The birth of Christ is celebrated a few days after the shortest day of the year—from Jesus’ birthday onward, we see that the daylight lengthens with each passing day.  On the other hand, John the Baptist’s birthday comes just after the longest day of the year—we will soon notice that the days are getting shorter.  In the very length of the day itself, we see an example of what John told those who questioned his relationship to the expected Messias:  “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

    “This man [John] came as a witness, to bear witness concerning the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not himself the light, but was to bear witness to the light.” [2]  We hear this repeated at the end of nearly every Mass.

    Yesterday, instead of reading one of the Epistles at Mass, we read a passage from the prophet Jeremias;  today we read from prophet Isaias.  Both of these prophets wrote around the time of the Exile, when the Jewish people were taken into years of captivity in Babylon.  While they wrote for the people of their own time, with hindsight, we see that many of the things they said would be fulfilled only at the time of Jesus Christ.  Yesterday we heard God addressing Jeremias: “Before I formed you in the womb of your mother, I knew you;  before you were born, I sanctified you and made you a prophet to the nations.”[3]  This morning we read much the same thing in Isaias:  “The Lord formed me from the womb to be His servant.  He said to me:  «I will make you a light to the nations, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.»”[4]

    We know that the Jewish religion was ancestral—only people of the Jewish tribes were Jews—they did not (at all) strive to make converts of the gentiles they encountered.  But roughly five hundred years later, these words of Jeremias and Isaias were fulfilled in John the Baptist, who lit the way for Jesus Christ to bring the graces of God to every race and nation.

    “Before you were born, I sanctified you.”  In yesterday’s Gospel we heard the Angel of God tell Zachary that his son was to be named John, and that he would be “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.”[5]  In a few days we will celebrate the Visitation of the Mother of Jesus to her cousin Elizabeth, who was John’s mother.  “It came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe in her womb leapt ... for joy ... and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.”[6]

    This was something new in Israel:  Mary was proclaimed by the Angel to be “full of grace,” and John and Elizabeth were “filled with the Holy Ghost” by the power of the divine presence of Jesus Christ in the womb of His Mother.  The Mosaic Law with all of its minute ritual prescriptions was about to be fulfilled, as Jesus ushered in the New Law of Grace.  Mankind would no longer be restricted to doing holy things, but with the sanctifying grace of God and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, men and women could become radically holy in their selves.  “The Lord God of Israel ... filled Zachary with the Holy Ghost and he prophesied, saying «Blessed be the Lord ... for He has visited and wrought redemption for His people.»”[7]  And “His People” would no longer be the small number that inhabited Palestine, but would “reach to the ends of the earth.”[8]

    If we look at the life of John the Baptist, we are impressed by at least two things—things which we ought to try to imitate.  John was a seeker after truth, with a strong desire to communicate that truth to others.  He prepared the people who followed him into the desert not only to repent of their sins, but also to receive God’s truth directly from His only begotten Son.  Saint John the Evangelist (the other Saint John, who wrote the fourth Gospel) says:  “He who received his witness has set his seal on this, that God is true.”[9]  The Baptist was, after all, a martyr for truth—the truth of God’s moral law being far above desires of earthly kings and rulers.

    Perhaps it will not be necessary for us to share his fate and find our heads on a golden platter,  but we should always be in opposition to false doctrines and immoral behaviors.

    We also see in John the deepest humility.  He was the son of a Jewish priest, of a well known family within the priestly tribe of Aaron.  He could have taken his father’s place and lived a comfortable life.  Instead, he went out into the desert and lived a nearly primitive existence, asking nothing of society for himself.  Nor did he ask glory for himself—whenever questioned, he was explicitly clear that he was not himself the Messias:  “I am not the Christ ... I am not Elias ... I am not the Prophet ... I am the voice of one crying in the desert: «Make straight the way of the Lord» ... the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to loose.”[10]  John didn’t even try to retain the company of his own disciples.  Instead, he pointed Jesus out to them:  “Behold the Lamb of God,” and Andrew and the other John left him to follow Jesus from that day forward.[11]

    Again, we may not live the hard life of John in the desert, but we certainly can emulate his humility.  We will soon notice that the days are getting shorter as we draw nearer to the Birthday of Jesus.  The relationship between the two birthdays and the length of the days which follow them should always remind us to make the words of John the Baptist our own:

“He [Jesus] must increase, [therefore] I must decrease.”


[1]   John iii: 30

[2]   John i.

[3]   Jeremias i:. 4-5.

[4]   Isaias xlix: 5-6.

[5]   Gospel of the Vigil:  Luke i: 5-17.

[6]   Gospel of the Visitation Luke i: 39-47.

[7]   Today’s Gospel:  Luke i: 57-68.

[8]   Isaias xlix: 5-6.

[9]   John iii: 33.

[10]   John i: 19-27.

[11]   John i: 37.


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