This week we take a detour off the beaten path of the season of Pentecost to observe the festival of the Nativity of John the Baptist.
Of course nobody pretends to know when John the Baptist was actually born, just like nobody knows when Jesus was born but we do have one piece of chronological information. Luke 1:36 describes the annunciation to Mary of her conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit and adds, “now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” So we know John is about six months older than Jesus.
With this piece of information the church decided to make John EXACTLY six months older and placed his birth near the summer solstice on June 24.
I know what you are thinking, if John’s birth is celebrated exactly six months before Jesus wouldn’t that make it June 25th? Well, yeah…but the discrepancy has to do with how the Roman calendar counted days. Kalends, where the word calendar comes from, was the first of each month, and rather than count the days after each Kalends the Romans counted the days leading up to the Kalends…those crazy Romans!
Anyway, there is also a liturgical/symbolic content to the celebration of the Nativity of John. Jesus’ birth was intentionally placed at the winter solstice (I know what you’re thinking…why isn’t it December 21st then? Google it!). Jesus was born on the longest night as God’s answer to the world’s darkness. “The light shines in the darkness” (I know what you’re thinking, what about in the southern hemisphere? Well…too bad.)
John’s birth is on the longest day of the year. Does this mean John is “brighter” than Jesus? Nope, this corresponds to what John said in the Gospel of John,
27John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah,* but I have been sent ahead of him.” 29He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.’(John 3:27-30)
Jesus was born on the day which leads to the lengthening of days (hence lengthening [Lent] in spring) so John was born at the point when the light begins to diminish. Get it?
Liturgical significance aside, St John’s Eve or Mid-Summer’s Eve as it was often called, was a time of wild partying in Medieval Europe. If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s play, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, you get some idea of the goings on!
Our readings for this week begin with the predictive text in Malachi. It is this very prediction that earns Malachi, in the Christian Bible, the last spot in the Old Testament. It’s short so I’ll just put it out here:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)
This verse became the descriptor of the anticipation of a “forerunner” to a messianic figure, that is a delivering king. Malachi prophesied that in the midst of a terrible conflagration (brought on by Israel’s own intransigence) a figure would be sent to give direction. At the end of Malachi that figure was named:
5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)
For this reason John the Baptist was associated with Elijah. The camel’s hair coat and the leather belt John the Baptist was described as wearing was not meant to be a Red Carpet style description but would definitely put people in mind of Elijah who was described in 2 Kings 1:8 ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ Therefore, John the Baptist was the figure preceding the messianic figure (even though he denies being Elijah in John 1:21) and everybody would have recognized him by his outfit.
The gospel reading from Luke describes the events leading up to the birth of John. Although John’s conception came about in the usual manner, John’s mother Elizabeth was described as being barren up until this point. (I know what you’re thinking, why did it have to be Elizabeth’s fault that they couldn’t have kids? Of course, sterility was always the woman’s fault in those days and fertility was credited to the male)
Zachariah, John’s father, was a priest in the temple. While he was carrying out his priestly service he was visited by the angel Gabriel who told him that his and his wife’s prayers were answered and they would have a son. Zachariah asked a question and I guess questions were frowned upon because the angel punished Zachariah for his doubts by rendering him dumb for the rest of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. (Was this the answer to Elizabeth’s prayers?)
You know, I have to stick up for Zachariah here. He did ask the angel a question and stated a condition (their age) as a legitimate reason for his astonishment. But Mary would do the very same thing and she didn’t get punished!
Anyway, when John was born they were going to name him after Zachariah but the still mute Zachariah motioned for a writing tablet and scribbled that he should be named John, which was the name Gabriel said he was to be named. With this Zachariah’s tongue was set loose and he immediately spoke the prophesy which became called the Benedictus.
Since early times this canticle has been the principle canticle of Morning Prayer (Matins/Lauds) because of its description of the dawn from on high breaking upon the world.
In this prophesy Zechariah described the role John would play as a forerunner of the savior predicted from of old. John would go ahead to prepare the way. This preparation would include the proclamation of God’s salvation and the announcement of the forgiveness of sin.
John the Baptist was a very important figure in the salvation history of Israel. He is the connecting tissue linking the Old and New Testaments. John is described by Jesus as the greatest (ultimate as in final) of the prophets. Indeed he is the greatest of those born of women! But Jesus also acknowledged the difference between what John announced and what Jesus would do. Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)
This announcement by Jesus came after the very strange episode where John, from prison, heard about what Jesus was doing and sent some of his disciples (I know what you’re thinking, why did John still have disciples?) to ask if Jesus was really the messiah or not.
The strange thing about John, and maybe this is always the case for a transitional figure, is that he doesn’t quite seem to fully comprehend what the one whose way he was preparing would be all about. John announced the coming of a messianic figure who would bring about a judgment and punishment for sin.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (John 3:11-12)
When Jesus doesn’t do any of these things but seems to announce an alarming clemency and general amnesty for sin you begin to understand John’s confusion. John is the greatest of prophets, but even John can barely comprehend the vastness of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ. The question we might ask during the celebration of the Nativity of John is, do we?