Sunday, June 24, 2012

The birth of John the Baptist: A midsummer Christmas reminder

John the Baptist really is a special guy. Not only was he related to our Lord  (Scripture tells us that Mary and Elizabeth, John’s mother, were “kinswomen”), he is also one of only two saints whose birth is celebrated on the Church calendar (the other is Mary). We may think nothing of celebrating a birthday because it’s a deep-seated part of our culture. But in terms of Church commemorations and the official Church calendar, it is customary to celebrate a saint on or near the their date of their death because that is seen as their “heavenly birthday;” the day of their birth into the everlasting life of heaven. But with John the Baptist (as with the Blessed Virgin Mary), we as the Church celebrate his birth as being vital to the work of our redemption.

In deed, John the Baptist’s role in the history of our redemption was pivotal. He was born, according to the plan of God, to be a prophet—the final and greatest in the long line of Israel’s prophets. In God’s salvation plan, John preceded Christ (but only barely), calling all to repentance and pointing all toward Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. John himself knew that his role was to herald the way for the Messiah: “After me,” he said, referring to Jesus, “One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7)

Birth of John the Baptist
The New Testament makes it clear that John’s birth was an important event. Luke’s Gospel records the details, telling us about John’s parents (named Zechariah and Elizabeth), visits by angels foretelling his birth and about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth when each was with child, and how, “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant [John] leaped in her womb.” (Lk 1:41).  We are also told in that Gospel that this event (the Visitation) happened when Elizabeth was “in her sixth month,” telling us that John was born about six months before Jesus.

So, in a sense, the nativity (or birthday) of John the Baptist is intimately connected to the nativity of our Lord. It’s almost like having a reminder of Christmas in the middle of the summer.  Today’s feast helps us to realize the gravity of the Incarnation, a mystery of our faith that emanates throughout the Church year, far beyond December. Our mid-winter celebration of Christ’s birth is also directly connected to our celebration of the Annunciation: March 25th, after all, falls exactly nine months before December 25th.

But today’s feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is also connected to Christmas in another, more cosmological way. Here’s how:

December 25th falls near the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere—the shortest day of the year and a time after which the length of the days begins to grow. In a symbolic sense, with the days beginning to grow longer after the winter solstice, light begins to increase. So we can see how the ancients (who were always very keen in seeking out signs and symbols in the natural order) came to view the winter solstice as the “birthday of the sun.”

Today, June 24th, falls just after the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. After the summer solstice, the days begin to get shorter and, symbolically, light begins to decrease.

From a Christian perspective, then, we can begin to see the same connection between the Nativity of Christ (i.e. Christmas) on December 25th with the “birth of the sun” and increase of light on the winter solstice that the early Christians saw. In Christian terms, we might say that nature echoes an important spiritual reality: that on that first Christmas the world beheld the birth of “the Sun of Righteousness” (see Malachi 4:2) when Jesus, “the light of the world” first appeared and began to grow in radiance. (John 8:12)

In a like manner, the early Church came to view June 24th—immediately following the summer solstice, the longest day of the year—as an appropriate date to mark the birth of the final prophet. After all, it was almost exactly six months before Christmas (echoing with the Scriptural information about John’s birth). But the summer solstice is also an appropriate time to remember the final prophet of Israel, the one who announced the arrival of the Messiah by famously stating: “this joy of mine [to announce the coming of the Christ] is now full. He must increase but I must decrease” (Jn 3:29-30).

So, join the Church today in celebrating the birth of John the Baptist, the final and greatest prophet of Israel and the forerunner of the Christ. Having just passed the summer solstice, with the days just now beginning to grow shorter, we can also praise God for the wonderful reminders of salvation that are woven into the very fabric of his creation, and we can join in the awe and wonder of the Psalmist who wrote that “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” (Psalm 19)

On a related and very interesting note: Archaeologists recently announced that they have identified what they believe to be the bones of John the Baptist. You can read that story here.