On Wednesday 24 June is the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist. Only two other birthdays are celebrated in the Church Calendar: The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Otherwise, saints and blessed are remembered on the dates of the deaths, for this date of their earthly death is seen as the beginning of their eternal life in Heaven. Could the reason for honouring St. John the Baptist on his birthday be because he was cleansed from Original Sin, baptised as it were, when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth and he leapt in his mother’s womb when the unborn Jesus in Mary’s womb approached? This apparently is the dogmatic justification for today’s feast. In the breviary St. Augustine explains the reason in the following words:
“Apart from the most holy solemnity commemorating our Saviour’s birth, the Church keeps the birthday of no other person except that of John the Baptist.* In the case of other saints or of God’s chosen ones, the Church, as you know, solemnises the day on which they were reborn to everlasting beatitude after ending the trials of this life and gloriously triumphing over the world. For all these the final day of their lives, the day on which they completed their earthly service is honoured. But for John the day of his birth, the day on which he began this mortal life is likewise sacred. The reason for this is, of course, that the Lord willed to announce to men His own coming through the Baptist, lest if He appeared suddenly, they would fail to recognise Him. John represented the Old Covenant and the Law. Therefore he preceded the Redeemer, even as the Law preceded and heralded the new dispensation of grace.”
(*The feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin had not yet been introduced at the time of St. Augustine’s writings.)
Devotion to St. John the Baptist is
ancient in the Church and his Nativity was (and still is) celebrated in
many places with a vigil and bonfires and much merrymaking. It continues
to be a big feast in Spain, especially along the southern and eastern
coasts. At midnight on the eve of the feast, it is the custom to go down
to the edge of the sea to wash one’s face “of the olde (sins)” and be
renewed (symbolically of course).
St. John the Baptist has another feast, that of his Beheading, on 29th August 29. And the Orthodox churches honour St. John the Baptist even more often, with many feast days celebrating the “finding of the head of the Forerunner”!
“St. John the Baptist was uncompromising in his attitude towards sin, condemned fearlessly his incredulous and adulterous generation, and accepted martyrdom rather than flatter or condone the vices of the rich and the mighty.” (Excerpted from commentary for the Readings in the Extraordinary Form.)