Today we celebrate Summer’s great Nativity feast. This is one of the Church’s oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into the universal Church to honour a saint. In times gone by, this day was celebrated with picnics and bonfires or fireworks at night in honor of the shining light of John the Baptist who blazed the way for the Messiah.
It is interesting to note that, of all the great saints whose feast days we remember in the Church throughout the year, we only celebrate three birthdays. For all the other saints, we simply celebrate their deaths into eternal life. Besides John’s, the birthdays of Jesus and Mary are the only other two births we honor liturgically.
So what is it about John that makes his birth so special? And how can his story help us in our 21st century lives? Why is it proper to celebrate the Feast of St. John on the day of his nativity, whereas with other saints it is the day of their death? Well, to begin with, unlike the others, the Gospels tell us that he was "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" and today should signify a day of triumph.
The Birth of Jesus is celebrated on the 25 of December. We celebrate the Birth of John six months earlier on the 24 of June. The appearance of Gabriel to Mary, called the Annunciation, assumed to be nine months before the birth of Jesus, is celebrated on the 25 of March and and the appearance of Gabriel to Zechariah in the Temple, still celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox, is on the 23 of September. For us Christians of the Northern Hemisphere, these dates, though they don’t provide factual evidence, embrace a rich symbolism, and they are excellent for meditation.
John, born to an elderly, barren woman, is the last voice of the Old Covenant, the close of the Age of Law. The news of his birth is met with unbelief, and his father is struck dumb. Jesus, born to a young virgin, is the first voice of the New Covenant, the beginning of the Age of Grace. The news of his birth was met with belief and he was conceived through faith.
John is announced (and conceived) at the autumnal equinox, when the leaves are dying and falling from the trees. Jesus is announced (and conceived) at the vernal equinox, when the green buds are bursting forth on the trees and there are signs of new life everywhere. John is born when the light of day is the longest, and from his birth on the days grow steadily shorter. Jesus is born when the days are shortest, and from his birth on the light of day grows steadily longer. Augustine relates this natural phenomenon to the Baptist’s prophecy in the Gospel of John when he says of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease."
Today’s Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours uses a sermon of St. Augustine’s that really provides great insight into the scriptural importance of John the Baptist. He writes:
“John, then, appears as a kind of boundary between the two testaments, the old and the new. That he is a sort of boundary the Lord himself bears witness to when he speaks of “the law and the prophets up until John the Baptist.” Thus he represents times past and is also the herald of the new era to come. As a representative of the past he’s 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.”
So we can see that, other than the Virgin Mary, no other human being was born with such great expectations, expectations given before he was even born.
It’s a shame that most of our images of John are the Hollywood images of some wild-eyed fanatic, as if though his years spent in the desert had made him a little less than human. But the gospels tell us he had a great following.
What we do know is that in his late 20’s he came out of the desert. The gospels tell us: “And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching, clothed not in the soft garments of a courtier, but in those of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; he looked as if he came neither eating nor drinking and his meat was locusts and wild honey; his whole countenance, far from suggesting the idea of a reed shaken by the wind manifested undaunted constancy. Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan, drawn by his strong and winning personality, went out to him; the austerity of his life added immensely to the weight of his words; for the simple folk, he was truly a prophet. "Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand", such was the burden of his teaching. Men of all conditions flocked round him. “
When we picture someone with a strong and winning personality, someone who attracts great multitudes of people from every walk of life, do we imagine a wild-eyed fanatic? This is a very unfair stereotype of people who seek to find themselves - and God - in the desert. And it might prevent some of us from even trying. But why would we even want to go there?
The Desert Fathers believed that the desert wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men precisely because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. Nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen people wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. The could have reached the Promised Land in a couple of months if they had traveled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as an idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
Yet look at the deserts today. We use them to test means of enourmous destruction; we fight for the oil that lies beneath them; we build fantastic towns of gambling and experimentation and vice.
These glittering towns are no longer the images of the City of God coming down to enlighten the world with the vision of peace.
Thomas Merton wrote that: “When man and his money and machines move out into the desert and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did. but believing in his (the devil’s) promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere. Everywhere is desert. Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance and fight the adversary and purify his own heart in the grace of God.”
Merton goes on: “ The desert is the home of despair. And despair now is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. This then is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find him.”
That folks, is our legacy from John the Baptist. That’s why we celebrate the day of his birth. Because it was his voice, crying in the wilderness that gave us hope. Hope that God will never go back on his promises to us. Even if he has to send his son to die for us, he would do that if it is the only way for us to learn how to turn our hearts and minds to him and to reconcile ourselves to him.
That was John’s baptism, the baptism of reconcilliation. That’s the beginning of the road to salvation and joy in the eternal kingdom. And it was John who broke the ground for one who paved that road for us through his death and resurrection. Thank you John; thank you Lord for giving us that hope.