About the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
On June 24th, in the Roman calendar, the church celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist. The celebration of the birth of the Forerunner is one of the oldest feasts in the Church's history, dating from the earliest days. St. John the Baptist has remained a beloved saint throughout the life of the Church, and many religious orders, institutions, churches, and shrines were established under his patronage. The Eastern Church especially venerates him and he is given a prominence in the Liturgy and Church art to a degree which is not seen in the West – an expression of Our Lord's words “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there is none greater than John the Baptist.”
What little we know of the life of John the Baptist and his mission is contained in the four gospels:
John's father, Zachery, was a priest of the Jewish law, and John's mother, Elizabeth was also of the house of Aaron. One day, Zachery received a vision from the angel Gabriel that his wife Elizabeth, who was called barren, would conceive a son to be named John. The angel told Zachery that John would “be great before the lord.” Zachery, amazed, asked for a sign to be given, and in response, the angel answered that Zachery would be unable to speak until the birth of the child. When Elizabeth gave birth, friends and family assumed the baby would be named Zachery, after his father. But Zachery took a tablet, and wrote on it “John is his name,” and immediately he recovered his voice and broke into the Benedictus, the great canticle of love and thanksgiving.
John was a prophet, and is also called the forerunner, precursor, or harbinger, due to his role in heralding the coming of Jesus Christ. He began his ministry around the age of 27, going into the desert, living on locusts and honey and dressing in a tunic made of camel hair. At the river Jordan, near Jericho, he announced that all men must be obligated to wash away their sins “with the tears of sincere penance.” His baptizing in the river was mystically significant in a way the legal washings and purifications of Jewish law were not. This is where he earned his name as “The Baptist.” Many priests and Levites were sent to ask John is he was the Christ; he confessed “I am not the Christ” and to his followers he preached, "I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire".
He had been preaching and baptizing for some time when Our Lord came to St. John to be baptized. John first refused, saying, “I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?" Out of obedience, John eventually did baptize Jesus. It was, as St. Ambrose has said, not for Jesus to be cleansed Himself, but to sanctify the waters, to give them the virtue to cleanse the sins of man. John the Baptist continued his ministry, preaching and baptizing on the Jordan for sometime, before being jailed, and eventually beheaded, after he publicly spoke out against Herod's choice to set his wife aside and keep his brother's wife as his mistress.
Typically, the feast proper of saint is celebrated on the day of their death. While we do also honor the death and martyrdom of John the Baptist in August, the feast of his birth has long held a place of honor in both the Greek and Latin liturgies, as the Gospels relate the birth of John the Baptist to the birth of Our Lord. John, the precursor, was filled with the Holy Spirit, as the angel Gabriel dictated he would be, even from his mother's womb, and this is reason for triumph and for honor. John was the very one of which the prophet wrote “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” In his nativity and in his adult life, St. John prepares the way for the Lord.