The birthday of St John the Baptist is celebrated on 24 June. Looking at St John, we can see him as a man of contrasts.
An angel appeared to St John’s father, Zachary, and told him that he would have a son, even though Zachary and his wife, Elizabeth, were advanced in age.
Zachary did not initially accept this and was given a sign, that he could not speak until the child had been born. In contrast, St John’s mission was to preach to crowds and tell the Jews that the Messiah would be coming shortly.
St Zachary was a priest under the Mosaic Law, and the angel appeared to him while he was offering a sacrifice in the Temple. This meant that, as his son, St John was also a priest under the Old Covenant.
However, he did not serve as a priest and his vocation was to herald the coming of the Messiah. As the forerunner of the Messiah, he was not a priest under the new dispensation.
Mary came to visit Elizabeth and assist her with her pregnancy. Bearing the Divine Word in her womb, Mary brought the Savior to the unborn child whom Elizabeth was carrying. At that moment, as the angel had said, the infant St John was “filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born”.
Which is why St John is so different from other saints. The Church usually celebrates their heavenly birthdays, ie the anniversaries of their deaths. But the Church celebrates St John’s birthday as manifesting the triumph of God’s grace because St John was born sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
For most of his life, St John the Baptist lived a life of prayer as a hermit in the Judean desert. He practiced great asceticism, wearing a camel hide (the equivalent of the later hair shirt) and eating only locusts and wild honey.
So, after he started preaching in public, we might expect that he demanded considerable austerities from people who came to hear him.
But instead he taught alms giving - for those who could afford it - and obedience to basic moral laws. For example, Jews collaborating with the Roman occupation forces were told only, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely; be content with your pay.”
His prophetic role
St John also taught that the Messiah was coming and that the people needed to repent of their sins. He was in the line of the prophets of Judah and Israel, who had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah.
But St John was more than a prophet. He was given the privilege of actually seeing the Messiah and announcing that He had come.
Then, protesting his unworthiness, he baptized the Lord and had his message confirmed. He saw the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus and heard the Father’s voice declaring that Jesus was the Son of God.
The local ruler was King Herod, a son of Herod the Great who had murdered the Holy Innocents. Then, as now, it was a delicate political situation. Herod became afraid that St John might stir up the masses, and he had him arrested and thrown into prison.
Herod had an irregular union with Mariamne, who was both his niece and his half-brother’s wife. St John had denounced this breach of the moral law and Mariamne did not forget this insult. When the chance came, she persuaded Herod to have St John beheaded.
O God, who has made this day worthy of honour
by the birth of blessed John:
grant to Your people the grace of spiritual joys,
and direct the minds of all the faithful into the way of eternal salvation.