Today we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This feast stands out for many reasons, but the most obvious one is that today’s feast is one of three nativities on the Church Calendar. The other two are the Nativity of Mary, the Mother of God and (of course) Christmas, the feast of Our Lord’s Nativity.
In fact, today’s feast is a reminder that Christmas is only six months away. Much like John the Baptist, today’s feast is a proclamation to prepare the way for Christ and all that His coming promises. And the parallels between these births doesn’t end there.
But why do we celebrate this prophet’s nativity? What allows him to be one of three nativities on the calendar?
Giving Voice to the Word
When the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he promised the elderly priest that many would rejoice at the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Lk 1:14). We continue to do just that.
Today’s Mass readings outline the many great things John will do. But more than that, Zechariah cannot believe he and his wife could even conceive due to their age. Much like the feast of Christmas, today’s feast gives testament to God’s ability to bring new life. But that ability to bring new life to his family is what raises Zechariah’s skepticism.
I often wonder why the idea of new life was so strange to Zechariah while he was conversing with a mighty, terrifying angel. The angel further tells the aged priest that John will be made to convert and make people ready for the Lord. Yet, Zechariah is having trouble with the part of the prophecy that involves him having a son. Due to this doubt, Gabriel silences Zechariah until John is born and all these prophecies come true.
St. Augustine notes here the difference between John’s annunciation and Christ’s:
The news of John’s birth was met with incredulity, and his father was struck dumb. Christ’s birth was believed, and he was conceived through faith.
We can’t be too hard on Zechariah, though. The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is full of miracles that are only then outdone by the birth of his cousin, Jesus Christ. Zechariah may have not had the faith of Joseph and Mary, but he found the joy and hope when his voice was regained.
After John is given his name, Zechariah spends that first Nativity feast proclaiming the goodness of the Lord and giving further prophecy. Now “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Jn 1:23) has his birth proclaimed by the gift of speech to his father, which is used to prophecy and to praise.
And so the Nativity of St. John the Baptist celebrates this voice of prophecy and praise, which proclaims the coming of The Word of God. As Augustine proclaims,
The voice is John, but the Lord in the beginning was the Word [John 1:1]. John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal.
Timing of the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
As I noted above, today’s feast is just over six months away from Christmas. It’s also three months after the feast of the Annunciation (March 25th).
On the feast of the Annunciation, we celebrate when Gabriel promised Mary the Nativity of Jesus. The angel also told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, was in the sixth month of her pregnancy with John.
These feasts are not to be seen as the literal dates, but their placement still has much to teach us. With the Nativity of John the Baptist, we celebrate a man who had a unique role in salvation history, half a year before the great Nativity of Our Lord.
But there’s another great thing this feast teaches us. As you probably noticed, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist falls just three days after the Summer Solstice. So it is that the Nativity of St. John occurs right as the days are beginning to get shorter. Likewise, Christ’s nativity falls a few days after the Winter Solstice when the days are beginning to get longer. And we see that, even on his feast day, St. John the Baptist sums up the Gospel as he proclaimed, “I must decrease, that He may increase.” (Jn 3:30)
As we begin our summer days, we remember the birth of St. John the Baptist who came to this world to make a way for the shining light of Jesus Christ. We can celebrate him by learning to proclaim and praise the name of Jesus in our lives.