Q: I know that the patron saint of your abbey, St. John’s Abbey, is St. John the Baptist. His birthday is celebrated on June 24. Why does the church celebrate his birthday on that day?
A: We do not have a birth certificate for John the Baptist, that wild-looking and tough-talking prophet we hear from during Advent. He appears in the Gospel readings of that season about a week or two after Santa Claus appears in the stores. His birthday celebration on June 24 may seem just as sudden and unexpected as his birth was.
In celebrating the solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist on that day, the church is making an important statement about him and his cousin Jesus. Just as the hours of daylight begin to grow longer at the winter solstice and the Nativity of the Lord in December, so the hours of daylight begin to decrease at the summer solstice and the Nativity of John the Baptist in June. This is only fitting for the one who said about Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
Made for a mission
On the Nativity of John the Baptist, the church invites us to share the gladness that blessed the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah in the birth of their son.
Certainly John, like all newborns, must have received amounts of attention all out of proportion to his tiny size. But the baby who disrupted the settled lifestyle of his aged parents would grow up to unsettle the stifling status-quos of his contemporaries.
This child came to realize that he was “wonderfully made,” in the words of today’s responsorial psalm (Psalms 139:14). He was wonderfully made for a most wonderful mission to God’s people. Filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, John was to bring the chosen people back to their God, so that God could come close to them in the person of the beloved Son.
The prophet Malachi had foretold John’s mission: to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents before the coming of the great Day of the Lord. John was to be a powerful minister of reconciliation through the words of his preaching and the water of his baptism, turning the hearts of rebellious humanity to the saving wisdom of God. By his urgent summons to repentance, John would “prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:17), ready to receive God’s forgiveness in their Savior, Jesus Christ.
John could and would do this because he himself was filled with the spirit and power of another great prophet. In the ninth century before Christ, when apostasy and idolatry were widespread in Israel, Elijah had preached a similarly urgent message of return to the one true God. And Elijah’s mighty words and works did not end with his ride to heaven in the fiery chariot.
His return to earth was thought to be a necessary prelude to Israel’s deliverance and restoration in the final days.
Even now, at every Passover meal, the Jewish people pray: “May the All Merciful send us Elijah the Prophet to comfort us with tidings of deliverance.” It is their belief that for every undecided question, of pain or sorrow, of rewarded worth or unpunished evil, Elijah will someday provide the answer.
Thus, during the Passover meal, the door is opened for Elijah, so that his spirit may enter their homes and taste with them the wine of endless promise. The cup of wine for Elijah to drink from represents the final messianic promise for them and for all peoples.
Preparing the way
We Christians also look forward to that day when God’s whole will for this world will be accomplished. But we believe that the holy prophet Elijah has returned in the person of John the Baptist.
Jesus told his disciples that Elijah had already come in the one who prepared for the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 11:14; 17:10-13). And from beyond the grave, John the Baptist still testifies to his vocation as one who went before the Lord, promoting justice, condemning corruption and preparing repentant ones for the reign of God in Christ Jesus.
Such are the words and deeds that made John, as they make every believer, “great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:15). For like John, each of us is “wonderfully made,” made for some wonderful purpose that God has in mind and heart for each of us. We come to know that purpose throughout our lives, but perhaps we will know it completely only in the life to come.
As we celebrate John’s birth, may the All Merciful God renew in us the spirit of this mightiest prophet and the spirit of the still mightier one — Jesus Christ — whose way he prepared.
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at email@example.com or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.