Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
(Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lucas 1:56-66.80)
Where will we be in six months? Usually we have to plan a bit before responding to such a question. But in this case even now we can be relatively sure. For six months from today is Christmas Eve, December 24. We probably have a custom of spending Christmas Eve with our families. Or maybe this year – undoubtedly we have thought about it already – we plan to do something different.
We celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist six months before the birth of Christ because in the Gospel according to Luke the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary when her cousin Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Then how do we determine that the birth of John occurs in June and the birth of Jesus in December? The gospels never say directly, but in the Gospel of John Jesus is described as “the light shining in darkness” (1:5). Certainly there is no greater darkness that at the winter solstice, at the end of December. Also, in that gospel John says, “I must decrease; he must increase.” The Church has symbolized these references by placing the feast of John’s birth on June 24 when the daylight starts decreasing in length and Christmas on December 25 when the length of days starts increasing.
Today’s gospel tells of the naming of the Baptist. His father gives him the name John despite the fact that neither he nor any family member has that name. John literally means the Lord has shown favor. Certainly both Zachariah and Elizabeth feel favored for having been made able to give birth to a son in their old age. But the fact that John has a fitting name does not explain the wonder of the moment. The people are overcome with awe because all of a sudden Zachariah finds his voice. He could not speak after failing to believe the angel Gabriel who told him that Elizabeth would give birth. Now he shows genuine faith in God by obeying the instructions given by the angel concerning the name of his son.
We should not have to celebrate Christmas in June to think of the poor now. Often the poor are barraged with food in December, but food pantries turn barren at midyear. To inquire whether the poor are having their basic needs met now and to act to accordingly would provide a fitting tribute to John. After all, he is the one who first proclaimed for us the nearness of the Lord.