A Homily Thread for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Homily tweeting for the Feast of the Nativity of St John Baptist:

The Nativity of St John Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, who prepares the way for Christ, who is in himself the hinge between the Old Testament and the New, culminating the ministries of the prophets by introducing to the world the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, feast of any saint in the Church’s calendar.  

But why today, June 24th? Well, for starters, we may work out the date by the information St Luke gives to us in his Gospel. Remember that when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to invite her to become the Mother of God’s Only-Begotten, after Mary had given her assent, her fiat, Gabriel told her also of John’s coming birth: “And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” 

“It is the sixth month with her.” So John, we may infer, was born six months before Jesus. And the Church kept the feast of the Annunciation on March the 25th, and so of course also kept the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, Christmas, nine months later, on December 25th. 

And if Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John when our Lord was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, then that would put the birth of John in late June, and so the Church already in the 5th century was keeping this great feast of John’s Nativity on June 24th. 

But again, the ancients were much closer to nature and her cycles than are we, and so they saw another significance in these dates. The Lord’s Nativity is, they knew, celebrated on - or about, close to - the Winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, after which the days slowly get longer; the light increases. And John’s nativity is celebrated on - or about, close to - the Summer solstice, technically this past Thursday, the longest day and shortest night of the year after which, after today, the days slowly grow shorter and the nights longer; the darkness increases and will do so all the way until, well, Christmastime, when the light will grow. 

So we keep John’s feast today because of the Biblical timeline, but liturgically, these feasts have a kind of cosmic significance. 

The change in the seasons, the growing darkness followed by the growing light, proclaim the Baptist’s own words to his disciples as he directed them to Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” 

Again, we don’t live so close to nature any more. Solstice and equinox pass without notice. We live in an electrified world; if it’s dark, we flip a switch and - hey, presto - it’s light again. 

But our forefathers and mothers in the faith were very much aware that each day, beginning today, would have a little less light and a little more darkness. 

For them, keeping St John the Baptist’s feast on this day, at the Summer solstice, was itself the beginning of an eloquent, year-long sermon. 

It was John the Baptist again preaching to us from the heavens, directing our attention, directing or hope, to the coming of Christ, the light of Christ coming in to the darkness of this world, and overcoming it. 

“He must increase, and I must decrease,” John is saying to us still, and so setting out the program for every Christian life, every year, every day.

By the example and at the intercession of St John the Baptist, and beginning this very day, may the light of Christ increase in each one of us, overcoming the darkness of pride and selfishness in our own hearts, so that we, like John, may become beacons of God love and mercy.