There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, to prepare an upright people for the Lord.
— Entrance Antiphon, cf. John 1:6-7; Luke 1:17
Today the Church celebrates the nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets (and patron saint of Puerto Rico). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of Saint John:
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”(Jn 1:6) John was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb”(Lk 1:15, 41) by Christ himself, whom the Virgin Mary had just conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth thus became a visit from God to his people.(cf. Lk 1:68)
John is “Elijah (who) must come.”(Mt 17:10-13; cf. Lk 1:78) The fire of the Spirit dwells in him and makes him the forerunner of the coming Lord. In John, the precursor, the Holy Spirit completes the work of “(making) ready a people prepared for the Lord.”(Lk 1:17)
John the Baptist is “more than a prophet.”(Lk 7:26) In him, the Holy Spirit concludes his speaking through the prophets. John completes the cycle of prophets begun by Elijah.(Cf. Mt 11:13-14) He proclaims the imminence of the consolation of Israel; he is the “voice” of the Consoler who is coming.(Jn 1:23; cf. Isa 40:1-3) As the Spirit of truth will also do, John “came to bear witness to the light.”(Jn 1:7; cf. Jn 15:26; 5:35) In John’s sight, the Spirit thus brings to completion the careful search of the prophets and fulfills the longing of the angels.(Cf. 1 Pet 1:10-12) “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God…. Behold, the Lamb of God.”(Jn 1:33-36)
Finally, with John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to man of “the divine likeness,” prefiguring what he would achieve with and in Christ. John’s baptism was for repentance; baptism in water and the Spirit will be a new birth.(Cf. Jn 3:5) (Catechism of the Catholic Church 717-720)
However, like the Transformers, there is more to John than meets the eye. He and his mother Elizabeth are the first to receive Our Blessed Lord in a “Eucharistic procession” as Christ was carried by His Blessed Mother Mary – the Ark of the New Covenant, His first Tabernacle. It is John’s reaction to the presence of God near him that fills Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit allowing her to proclaim the Gospel truth as Peter did later at Caesarea Philippi (Cf. Mt 16:16):
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke (RSV) 1:39-45)
It is, in part, the witness of the unborn John that confirms the Church’s teaching on three dogmas:
- Jesus is the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity Who is God. Jesus is God incarnate.
- Mary, ever-virgin and immaculately conceived, is the Mother of God Who is Jesus. When we see Mary, we see Christ. When we see Christ, we see God. It is her DNA alone that miraculously makes His incarnation.
- Human life begins at conception. For two unborn children to interact in such a manner is not only mind boggling with respect to mystery of Divinity but also because it occurs every day in every pregnant woman. Does a child not react to outside stimuli but most especially to familiar sounds such as the heartbeat of their mother, her voice or even their father’s voice and love?
Simply put, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist is “Advent in ordinary times” (Catholic Culture).
Read the Bible at Mass
First Reading: Is 49:1-6
Hear me, O coastlands,
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Responsorial Psalm: 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15
R. (14) I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and when I stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
My journeys and my rest you scrutinize,
with all my ways you are familiar.
R. I praise you for I am wonderfully made.
Truly you have formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works.
R. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
My soul also you knew full well;
nor was my frame unknown to you
When I was made in secret,
when I was fashioned in the depths of the earth.
R. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
Second Reading: Acts 13:22-26
In those days, Paul said:
“God raised up David as king; of him God testified, I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish. From his man’s descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus. John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel; and as John was completing his course, he would say, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.’
“My brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those others among you who are God-fearing, to us this word of salvation has been sent.”
Gospel Reading: Lk 1:57-66, 80
When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.” But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.
About the Feast Day
This feast, a segment of Advent in the season of Ordinary Time, makes us aware of the wonderful inner relationship between the sacred mysteries; for we are still in the midst of one Church year and already a bridge is being erected to the coming year of grace.
Ordinarily the Church observes the day of a saint’s death as his feast, because that day marks his entrance into heaven. To this rule there are two notable exceptions, the birthdays of Blessed Mary and of St. John the Baptist. All other persons were stained with original sin at birth, hence, were displeasing to God. But Mary, already in the first moment of her existence, was free from original sin (for which reason even her very conception is commemorated by a special feast), and John was cleansed of original sin in the womb of his mother. This is the dogmatic justification for today’s feast. In the breviary St. Augustine explains the reason for today’s observance in the following words:
“Apart from the most holy solemnity commemorating our Savior’s birth, the Church keeps the birthday of no other person except that of John the Baptist. (The feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin had not yet been introduced.) In the case of other saints or of God’s chosen ones, the Church, as you know, solemnizes the day on which they were reborn to everlasting beatitude after ending the trials of this life and gloriously triumphing over the world.
“For all these the final day of their lives, the day on which they completed their earthly service is honored. But for John the day of his birth, the day on which he began this mortal life is likewise sacred. The reason for this is, of course, that the Lord willed to announce to men His own coming through the Baptist, lest if He appeared suddenly, they would fail to recognize Him. 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.”
In other words, today’s feast anticipates the feast of Christmas. Taking an overall view, we keep during the course of the year only two mysteries, that of Christ’s Incarnation and that of His Redemption. The Redemption mystery is the greater of the two; the Incarnation touches the human heart more directly. To the Redemption mystery the entire Easter season is devoted, from Septuagesima until Pentecost; and likewise every Sunday of the year, because Sunday is Easter in miniature.
The Christmas season has for its object the mystery of God-become-Man, to which there is reference only now and then during the remaining part of the year, e.g., on Marian feasts, especially that of the Annunciation (March 25) and today’s feast in honor of the Baptist. In a sense, then, we are celebrating Christ’s incarnation today. The birth of Jesus is observed on December 25 at the time of the winter solstice, while the birth of His forerunner is observed six months earlier at the time of the summer solstice. Christmas is a “light” feast; the same is true today. The popular custom centering about “St. John’s Fire” stems from soundest Christian dogma and could well be given renewed attention. St. John’s Fire symbolizes Christ the Light; John was a lamp that burned and shone. We Christians should be the light of the world.
Excerpted from The Church’s Year of Grace, Pius Parsch
Patron: Baptism; bird dealers; converts; convulsions; convulsive children; cutters; epilepsy; epileptics; farriers; hail; hailstorms; Knights Hospitaller; Knights of Malta; lambs; Maltese Knights; lovers; monastic life; motorways; printers, spasms; tailors; Genoa, Italy; Quebec; Sassano, Italy; Diocese of Savannah, Georgia; Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina; Diocese of Dodge City, Kansas; Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey; Diocese of Portland, Maine.
Symbols: Lamb; lamb on a book of seven seals; locust; camel’s hair tunic; girdle; his head on a charger; scroll with words Ecce Agnus Dei or with Vox Clamantis in deserto; long, slender cross-tipped staff; open Bible; banner of victory.
Things to Do:
- Read about the traditions connected with this feast, particularly the connection with bonfires.
- The Liturgy of the Hours for the Evening Prayer (Vespers) of the Birth of St. John the Baptist has traditionally included the Gregorian chant Ut Queant Laxis. Tradition has ascribed the hymn to a Paul Warnefried (Paul the Deacon, 730-799). While preparing to sing the Exsultet at the Holy Saturday vigil, he found himself hoarse, and so prayed to St. John the Baptist, since his father lost his voice before John was born. Paul’s voice was restored and he wrote this hymn in honor of the saint. True or not, what makes this song memorable is that the Benedictine monk used this hymn as a pivotal reference for our musical scale. See Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry Ut Queant Laxis, more information on the hymn from Catholic Culture, a Beginner’s Guide to Modal Harmony, and Gregorian Chant Notation.
- The Church year has two cycles. The more important cycle is the Temporal cycle (from the Latin tempus which means time or season). The life of Christ is relived in liturgical time, in both real time and Church’s memory. Throughout the year the Paschal Mystery (Christ’s work of redemption through His birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection and ascension) is relived, and broken down into the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Ordinary Time. Sundays are the usual means by which this cycle unfolds.
At the same time with the temporal cycle, the Sanctoral cycle (from the Latinsanctus which means saint) progresses. The Church honors Mary, Mother of God “with a special love. She is inseparably linked with the saving work of her son” (CCC 1172). Then the memorials of martyrs and other saints are kept by the Church. They are held up to us as examples “who draw all men to the Father through Christ, and through their merits she begs for God’s favors” (CCC 1173).
This is one of the few saint feast days that is connected with the temporal calendar, not the sanctoral calendar, because John the Baptist was intimately involved in Christ’s work of redemption. Charting or making your own liturgical calendar would be a great family project.
- Read the excerpt from the Directory on Popular Piety on the cult of St. John the Baptist.
- In Brazil, this day is known as Diário de Sáo Joáo (Saint John’s Day). The festivities are set off in the villages and countryside by the Fogueira de Sáo Joáo (bonfire) on St. John’s eve. Families and friends eat traditional foods around the fire while younger folks jump over the fire and firecrackers are exploded. The day is primarily a festival for children, who save up months in advance to purchase fireworks to set off for the day. In cities this is a day for parties and dances, with the urban dwellers dressing up in rural costumes.
St. John is the protector of lovers, so for fun, young country girls in Brazil will roll up scraps of paper, each bearing a name of a single girl and place them into a bowl of water. The first one which unfolds indicates the girl who will marry first.