Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. First of all, it’s a saint’s feast day, and saints’ days don’t usually take precedence over a Sunday celebration. Secondly, whenever we do celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth. But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth and his day at all on this Sunday points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ. In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that tells us something about how important John the Baptist is.
Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feast of their Nativity – their births – was a tradition developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant. Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter. John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons. But there’s more to it even than that. In the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.” So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer. John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.
Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order. Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born. Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today. He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword. His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.
Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of St. John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. There’s a dubious story in my own family’s history that my mother had my name picked out from the time she was twelve. But it’s pretty hard for me to believe that a young Italian woman would have picked the name Patrick Michael for her son. But that’s how the story goes. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. I looked mine up this week and found that Patrick means “nobleman,” so if you feel like bowing when you see me, that would certainly be appropriate. But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile. The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.” And that was in fact the message of his life. He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.
Maybe we don’t know the meaning of our own names, and maybe we don’t know the purpose that God has for our lives, that purpose that God intended even when we were in our mother’s wombs. Whatever our particular names may mean, we are also called Christian, and there is meaning behind that name. To be called Christian is to be called a follower of Christ, which means that like Jesus, we must lay down our lives for our friends, that we must preach the Good News of Salvation in our words and in our actions, and that we must always help people to come to know the love of God. And that, ultimately, is the purpose for which we have been created, the purpose God had for us from the time we were in our mother’s wombs. The way we do that might be different for each of us. Some will work out their purpose in the married life, raising children to love and honor God. Some will do that as priests or religious, bearing witness to all God’s people of the love God has for them. Some will do that in the single state, as models of chastity and courage in a world that can be dark and lonely.
Ultimately, the purpose for St. John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.” And that is a way that we must all be open to following. So often, we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, when that is exactly not where it should be. For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One for whom he was unfit to fasten his sandals. Just as the birth of St. John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world. Like St. John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God. We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us. We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.