The feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is one of the oldest feasts in the liturgy of the Church. Unlike other saints whose feast days are usually celebrated on the anniversary of their deaths — considered the day they entered into final glory — St. John’s feast day is the day of his birth, as he was born without the stain of original sin. The angel Gabriel declared of him, “He will be filled with Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). Since the Holy Spirit cannot dwell in the presence of sin, it is concluded that he was therefore freed from original sin while still in Elizabeth’s womb. Therefore we celebrate the date of his birth, as we do our Blessed Mother, born free of original sin from the moment of her conception.
The miraculous birth of John the Baptist is recounted in Luke’s Gospel where we learn of the elderly priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who was barren. While Zechariah was performing his priestly duties in the temple, the angel Gabriel came to him and prophesied the birth of a son. Because Zechariah doubted the word of the angel, he was struck dumb until the day of the birth, at which time, filled with the Holy Spirit, he proclaimed his prophetic canticle (Lk 1:68-79).
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel made his announcement to Mary; after her humble fiat, she “went with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The gospel tells us:
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” (Lk 1:40-44).
Thus, from the womb John served as the precursor, the forerunner of Jesus, the Messiah. Some thirty years later our Lord said of him, “This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee’” (Lk 7:27).
St. John is considered the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of him, “In him, the Holy Spirit concludes his speaking through the prophets. John completes the cycle of the prophets begun by Elijah. He proclaims the imminence of the consolation of Israel; he is the ‘voice’ of the Consoler who is coming” (CCC 719).
As Gabriel announced that John’s birth would bring joy to many (Lk 1:14), this feast of St. John’s birth is ranked as one of the most joyous feasts of the year. In days past, it was marked with great solemnity and rejoicing: on the eve of the feast “St. John’s fires” were lighted on the hills and mountains of many countries. Of these celebrations Dom Gueranger tells us, “Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away, when all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain top, and in an instant every town and village and hamlet was lighted up.”
1. In these days when we are faced with the scourge of abortion, the circumstances of the birth of John the Baptist provide us with a profoundly pro-life message. At the stage of merely six months in the womb of Elizabeth, he leaped with joy in the presence of our Lord who Himself had only just been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. He not only acknowledges the presence our Lord, but he affirms the presence of life, that great gift from God, from the moment of conception.
2. Many of us are grieved by the apathy and irreverence we see all around us, not only in the secular world but in our churches as well. Rather than becoming depressed, let us take a lesson from the baby John who leaped with joy in the presence of Christ so that, by our joyful example, we may change hearts and bring others to know “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).