Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. When we 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 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.
Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feasts of their Nativity – their births – were traditions 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. Saint Augustine reminds us 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 Saint John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “The LORD 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.
Ultimately, the purpose for St. John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.” And so it must be for us. Sometimes we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, when that is exactly where it should not 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.