“The Lord hath called me from the womb,
from the bowels of my mother he hath been mindful of my name.”
Saint Augustine tells us that in his own time the
Church celebrated only two birthdays in the liturgical calendar; that of
our Lord on December 25th, and that of Saint John the Baptist on June 24th.
Even today, the only other birthday‑feast is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary
on September 8th. The birthdays of Jesus and John lend themselves to an
important symbolism: John’s birthday, celebrated today, falls just after
the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. From this point forward,
the days grow shorter with each passing day. The daylight continues to
decrease until the winter solstice, when, just before the birthday of Jesus
Christ, they begin again to lengthen. Thus we are reminded by the Sun in
the sky of what John told his disciples:
I am not
Christ, but that I am sent before him. .... He must increase, but I must
decrease. He that cometh from above, is above all.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Augustine suggests that John the
Baptist is the last prophet of the Old Testament:
John represented the Old Covenant
and the Law. Therefore he preceded the Redeemer, even as the Law
preceded and heralded the new dispensation of grace.
John is a child of miracle, being
conceived in his parents’ barren old age, after the message of an angel from
He is a child of prophecy,
announcing the presence of his Lord by stirring in the womb of Elizabeth,
his mother, upon hearing the Virgin Mother’s greeting. Saint Luke records
the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was
filled with the Holy Ghost: And she cried out with a loud voice,
and said: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of
These are the same words that the Archangel spoke to
Mary at the Annunciation.
And they are the words of our most familiar prayer.
The Scripture says that “Elizabeth
was filled with the Holy Ghost,” and Catholic Tradition assumes that John
was filled with the Holy Ghost as well, and perhaps even delivered from
original sin at this early moment in his life. Immediately thereafter we
hear the voice of the first prophet of the New Testament, the Blessed Virgin
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
 And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.  Because he hath
regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth
all generations shall call me blessed.
And, again, the prophecy is one of our more familiar
prayers, the Magnificat, recited every evening of the year at
In three month’s it was time for
John’s circumcision, and his father Zachary, unable to speak since learning
from the Angel that he was to have a son, confirmed by writing that the
child’s name was to be John, as the Angel had informed him.
Zachary’s first words were another prophetic canticle, recited each morning
 Blessed be the Lord God of
Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of His
people....  To perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember His
holy testament....  And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet
of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to
prepare His ways....  To enlighten them that sit in darkness,
and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of
The Scriptures are silent about the
early life of John, other than that: “the child grew, and was strengthened
in spirit; and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to
Tradition has it that he went to the desert as a child—some
say to escape the persecution of Herod that drove the Holy Family to flee to
Egypt. He was apparently under the Nazarite vow; and would have taken no
wine, grapes, raisins, or vinegar; would not have cut his hair; and would
not have visited any grave.
Always the prophet, it is in the
baptism by John that we are first introduced to the Holy Trinity:
 Then cometh Jesus from
Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptized by him....  And
Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the
heavens were opened to Him: and He saw the Spirit of God descending
as a dove, and coming upon Him.  And behold a voice from heaven,
saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Today we celebrate the joyous birth
day of John the Baptist. We will celebrate his martyrdom in about two
months on August 29th. While his association with the Baptism of Jesus is
important, I would suggest that the circumstances at the end of his life are
most important, and are intended for us to emulate.
John was beheaded for, as we say in
the modern idiom, “Speaking truth to power”:
 For Herod [Antipas himself had sent and
apprehended John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias
the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her.  For
John said to Herod: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's
A lesser man might have just ignored
the situation. But Herod Antipas was king over a quarter of the people of
Israel. A man who should have been a sacred personage was living in public
adultery, and in incest too, for Herodias was Herod’s niece—both in defiance
of God’s Law given to Moses. It would be this same Herod who would mock
Christ, and send Him back to Pontius Pilate to be crucified.
“Speaking truth to power”—telling
those in authority that they are wrong when they are wrong—may well be the
most important public virtue of the twenty-first century. People have just
gotten used to the false idea that it is unpatriotic or irreligious to point
out errors of highly placed politicians or clergymen. Nothing could be
farther from the truth. Saint Paul resisted Saint Peter “to his face,” over
the relatively minor fault of attempting to please the Jewish converts by
not eating with gentile Christians.
Are we not obligated far more when
some politician acts against the rights of our citizens? Are we not
obligated far more when a priest or bishop denies some truth of our Catholic
Faith? Our Lord told us that “Amongst those that are born of women, there
is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.”
“Speaking truth to power”—telling those in authority that they are wrong
when they are wrong—may well be the most prophetic act that can be performed
by Catholic Americans of the twenty-first century.