The Church calendar is filled with many celebrations of the Saints and Holy Ones who went before us. Usually the celebration date is scheduled on the day that person died. We do that to recognize that the death day is the day the Holy One entered in to heaven. In the Church calendar we celebrate the birthday and the death day of only three people. The first is Our Lord Jesus Christ. The second is the Blessed Virgin Mary. The third is St. John the Baptist. It certainly doesn’t surprise us that we celebrate Our Lord’s birthday or Our Blessed Mother’s birthday. The fact that we celebrate ONLY one other’s birthday and death day tells us how important St. John the Baptist is to the Church. On June 24th we celebrate the feast day (birthday) of St. John the Baptist, and on August 29th we celebrate his Passion (death day).
Jesus himself says this about St. John the Baptist, “among those born of women, there has risen no one greater that John the Baptist”. So who then is this very special person? John is recognized by the Church to be the Last of the Old Testament Prophets, and the first of the New Testament. His own birth was quite miraculous, like many of the prophets that preceded him. His parents were well beyond the normal child bearing years. An angel, Gabriel, appeared to John’s father, the priest Zechariah, and foretold his miraculous birth. Gabriel told Zechariah that John would be “great before the Lord” and would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from within his mother’s womb”. Even his name, John, was divinely inspired. It means, “The Lord is Gracious’. When the Blessed Virgin Mary was pregnant with Jesus, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John. As soon as Mary spoke, John the Baptist leaped within his mother’s womb. The word translated “leaped” is the same word the Old Testament used when telling us that David danced before the Ark of the Covenant. David leaped and danced before the Ark of the Old Covenant and St. John the Baptist leaped before the Ark of the New Covenant (Mary). Truly, as the angel said, John was filled with the Holy Spirit even from within his mother’s womb.
John was certainly a man who was quite different from most. Scripture says that as a child he grew and became strong and then lived in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation to Israel. St. Mark tells us that he was clothed in camel’s hair and ate locust and wild honey. This was the same as Elijah the prophet. St. Mark also tells us that the appearance of St. John the Baptist was connected with Isaiah; he says, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare the way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. When John made his appearance, the people recognized him as a prophet and they came out to him in large numbers. He had numerous disciples who followed him. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand and the people had to repent. He baptized people as a sign of repentance. Jesus came to John to be baptized and John protested saying that it is He who should be baptizing. Jesus convinced John to baptize him, and he did and we have the beautiful Trinitarian theophany where the Holy Spirit is seen and God the Father’s voice is heard saying, “This is my beloved son”.
John was quick to say that he must decrease while the Lord must increase. He told his disciples to follow Jesus. John was the one who called Jesus, “The Lamb of God”. John was known for speaking out the TRUTH, no matter what the consequences were. This is what finally brought about his passion. John had publically rebuked Herod the Antipas telling him that his marriage to Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife, was unlawful. Herod threw him in prison but did not want to kill him because Herod knew that John was a Holy prophet and that the people loved John. Herodias hated John and, through some trickery with her daughter, was able to have the king behead (if you don’t know the story, read Matthew 14: 1-12). John’s disciples came quickly to claim his body and then immediately went to tell Jesus. It is interesting to note that Amiens Cathedral in France claims to have the skull itself. The history of it appears to make it quite probable. In 2010, archeological digs in a fifth century Cathedral of St. John, found parts of a body buried in a marble box under the main altar. Carbon dating shows these bones to be of a first century Middle Eastern man. They may very well belong to St. John the Baptist. In 2012, National Geographic covered this.
So why is St. John the Baptist so important to us? Personally, especially for today, the example he set in always standing for the truth, no matter what the consequences, is extremely important. Also, the fact that he did everything he could to try to prepare people for the coming of the Lord should resound within us. We too, are called to prepare people to be ready for the coming of the Lord, either by their first encounter with Him, their many encounters with Him, their encounter with him at death, or his second coming in glory.
I would like to share a prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours for Aug 29th. “God our Father, you called John the Baptist to be a herald of your Son’s birth and death. As He gave His life in witness to truth and justice, so may we strive to profess our faith in your Gospel. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one god, for ever and ever.”