The Birth of Saint John the Baptist
(Solemnity Celebrated 24 June)

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The Birth of Saint John the Baptist - by TINTORETTO - from the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

 

Luke 1:57-66,80

When Elizabeth's time for delivery arrived, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives, upon hearing that the Lord had extended His mercy to her, rejoiced with her. When they assembled for the circumcision of the child on the eighth day, they intended to name him after his father Zechariah. At this his mother intervened, saying, "No, he is to be called John."

They pointed out to her, "None of your relatives has this name." Then, using signs, they asked the father what he wished him to be called. He signaled for a writing tablet and wrote the words, "His name is John." This astonished them all. At that moment his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God.

Fear descended on all in the neighborhood; throughout the hill country of Judea these happenings began to be recounted to the last detail. All who heard stored these things up in their hearts, saying, "What will this child be?" and, "Was not the hand of the Lord upon him?"

The child grew up and matured in spirit. He lived in the desert until the day when he made his public appearance in Israel.

 

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Saint John the Baptist and the Lamb - by CARAVAGGIO - from Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel

 

The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of Saint John the Baptist are the canonical Gospels. Of these Saint Luke is the most complete, giving as he does the wonderful circumstances accompanying the birth of the Baptist and items on his ministry and death. Saint Matthew's Gospel stands in close relation with that of Saint Luke, as far as John's public ministry is concerned, but contains nothing in reference to his early life. From Saint Mark, whose account of the Baptist's life is very meager, no new detail can be gathered. Finally, the fourth Gospel has this special feature, that it gives the testimony of Saint John after the Savior's baptism.

Zachary, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest of the course of Abia, the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the priests were divided. Elizabeth, the Baptist's mother, "was of the daughters of Aaron", according to Saint Luke; the same Evangelist, calls her the "cousin" (syggenis) of Mary. These two statements appear to be conflicting, for how, it will be asked, could a cousin of the Blessed Virgin be "of the daughters of Aaron"? The problem might be solved by adopting the reading given in an old Persian version, where we find "mother's sister" (metradelphe) instead of "cousin". A somewhat analogous explanation, probably borrowed from some apocryphal writing, and perhaps correct, is given by Saint Hippolytus. According to him, Mathan had three daughters: Mary, Soba, and Ann. Mary, the oldest, married a man of Bethlehem and was the mother of Salome; Soba married at Bethlehem also, but a "son of Levi", by whom she had Elizabeth; Ann wedded a Galilean (Joachim) and bore Mary, the Mother of God. Thus Salome, Elizabeth, and the Blessed Virgin were first cousins, and Elizabeth, "of the daughters of Aaron" on her father's side, was, on her mother's side, the cousin of Mary. Zachary's home is designated only in a vague manner by Saint Luke: it was "a city of Juda", "in the hill-country". A tradition, which can be traced back to the time before the Crusades, points to the little town of Ain-Kari, five miles southwest of Jerusalem.

The birth of the Baptist was announced in a most striking manner. Zachary and Elizabeth, as we learn from Saint Luke, "were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame; and they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren". Long they had prayed that their union might be blessed with offspring; but, now that "they were both advanced in years", the reproach of barrenness bore heavily upon them. "And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord. And all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard and they wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias - that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people". As Zachary was slow in believing this startling prediction, the angel, making himself known to him announced that, in punishment of his incredulity, he should be stricken with dumbness until the promise was fulfilled. "And it came to pass, after the days of his office were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days, Elizabeth his wife conceived, and hid herself five months". Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin's conceiving, she went "with haste" to congratulate her. "And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant" -- filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost -- "leaped for joy in her womb", as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord. Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should "be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb". Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin. When "Elizabeth's full time of being delivered was come,. . she brought forth a son"; and "on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: Not so, but he shall be called John. And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made sign to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding -a writing table, he wrote,, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered". They were not aware that no better name could be applied (John, Hebr.; Jehohanan, i.e. "Jahweh hath mercy") to him who, as his father prophesied, was to "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto remission of their sins: through the bowels of the mercy of our God". Moreover, all these events, to wit, a child born to an aged couple, Zachary's sudden dumbness, his equally sudden recovery of speech, his astounding utterance, might justly strike with wonderment the assembled neighbours; these could hardly help asking: "What an one, think ye, shall this child be?".

As to the date of the birth of John the Baptist, nothing can be said with certainty. The Gospel suggests that the Baptist was born about six months before Christ; but the year of Christ's nativity has not so far been ascertained. Nor is there anything certain about the season of Christ's birth, for it is well known that the assignment of the feast of Christmas to the twenty-fifth of December is not grounded on historical evidence, but is possibly suggested by merely astronomical considerations, also, perhaps, inferred from astronomico-theological reasonings. Besides, no calculations can be based upon the time of the year when the course of Abia was serving in the Temple, since each one of the twenty-four courses of priests had two turns a year. Of John's early life Saint Luke tell us only that "the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts, until the day of his manifestation to Israel". Should we ask just when the Baptist went into the wilderness? Saint Peter of Alexandria believed Saint John was taken into the desert to escape the wrath of Herod, who, if we may believe report, was impelled by fear of losing his kingdom to seek the life of the Baptist, just as he was, later on, to seek that of the new-born Savior. Tradition says that Herod, on this account, had Zachary put to death between the temple and the altar, because he prophesied the coming of the Messiah. Nothing else is heard of the Baptist for 30 years.