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Ave Maria!

Feast of Saint John the Baptist—Fourth Sunday after Pentecost—24 June A.D. 2012


Ordinary of the Mass
Latin Text
English Text

Birth of John the Baptist

“The Lord hath called me from the womb,
from the bowels of my mother he hath been mindful of my name.”[1]

    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.[2]

“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.[3]

    John is a child of miracle, being conceived in his parents’ barren old age, after the message of an angel from God.

    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 that:

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 thy womb.”[4]

These are the same words that the Archangel spoke to Mary at the Annunciation.[5]  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 Mary:

    My soul doth magnify the Lord. [47] And my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. [48] Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.[6]

And, again, the prophecy is one of our more familiar prayers, the Magnificat, recited every evening of the year at Vespers.

    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.[7]  Zachary’s first words were another prophetic canticle, recited each morning at Lauds:

    [68] Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of His people.... [72] To perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember His holy testament.... [76] 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.... [79] To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.[8]

    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 Israel.”[9]  Tradition has it that he went to the desert as a child[10]—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.[11]

    Always the prophet, it is in the baptism by John that we are first introduced to the Holy Trinity:

    [13] Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptized by him.... [16] 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. [17] And behold a voice from heaven, saying: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”[12]

    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”:

    [17] 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. [18] For John said to Herod: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.”[13]

    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.[14]

    “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.[15]

    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.”[16]  “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.


[3]   Second nocturn, lesson iv from Sermon 20 on the Saints.

[10]   Hymn at Matins: “Antra desérti téneris sub annis.”

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