Luke 1:57-66, 80
Although they are few in number, there are a handful of select feasts that may be celebrated on the Sundays of Ordinary Time. Among these is this Sunday’s celebration of the birth of St. John the Baptist. One of only three birthdays celebrated during the course of the Church Year (the other two being the birth of Jesus on December 25 and the birth of Mary on September 8), this particular celebration dates back to the 4th century. The feast date of June 24 is based on Luke 1:36, which places the birth of St. John six months before the birth of Jesus.
In time, as devotion to John the Baptist spread and he became more popular, this feast came to be considered one of the most important liturgical celebrations of the year. In fact, it was so highly regarded, that the day before the feast was considered a day of fasting. In some countries, especially in Spain and Latin America, it is kept as a holy day of obligation. In the most recent reforms of the Roman Missal, a special Vigil Mass for the feast was reintroduced and should be celebrated on the evening of June 23.
As someone who loves the history of the Church’s liturgy, I find the stories of how feast days and seasons evolved to be an important part of the story of how our faith has grown through the centuries. But there is more to this feast than just a history lesson. The importance of this celebration lies in the figure of John the Baptist himself and in his role as a prophet, bridging the promises of the Old Testament with the fulfillment of those promises in Jesus.
This idea of fulfillment pervades the readings and prayers for this celebration. Reflecting on this theme, Henri Nouwen wrote:
“It is this full time about which Scripture speaks. All the great events of the Gospels occur in the fullness of time. A literal translation from the Greek shows this clearly: When the time for Elizabeth had become full she bore her son John (Luke 1:57).” (from “Eternal Seasons”)
The life and message of John the Baptist remind us that God keeps his promises. In his own life, John proclaimed the One promised by God — the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) — reminding the people that what had been promised to their ancestors was fulfilled in God’s own good time. And this invites us to reflect on the ways that we take God’s promises to heart in our time. As liturgical scholar Enzo Lodi has observed:
“From all those born of women, God chose John to prepare the way of the Lord. He was indeed more than a prophet because he not only preached repentance and conversion, but he actually pointed to Christ present in the midst of mankind.” (from “Saints of the Roman Calendar”)
As we confront the realities of suffering, injustice, exploitation, marginalization, and disintegration that fill our news broadcasts and social media feeds, the message of John the Baptist reminds us that God is at work, even now, bringing the promises of the Beatitudes to fulfillment in our time. What Jesus promised to those who are meek, to those who mourn, to those who suffer for the sake of righteousness, and so on are not promises for some far-away heaven. They are the blessings of the reign of God which is present, here and now (cf. Luke 17:21).
John also reminds each of us that we are called to be prophets, pointing out the presence of the Holy One in our own communities, parishes, and families. His clarion call broke through the noise, political unrest, and violence that typified life under Roman rule in 1st century Palestine, helping people recognize the presence of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The invitation for us is to lift our voices, to join in the prophets’ calls for justice and peace, and to help a war-weary world recognize the presence and promise of the Prince of Peace.
St. John the Baptist, pray for the prophets among us and help us to proclaim the Good News of God’s promises in every aspect of our lives.
Br. Silas Henderson, S.D.S.