Feast Day: June 24
John the Baptist is among the few saints who enjoy two main feast days. This day, the more important of the two and one of the oldest feasts, celebrates his birth and ministry; his other (Aug. 29) celebrates his martyrdom.
John was born the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, thus making him a cousin of Jesus. St. Augustine and some other theologians saw something symbolic in the fact that John the Baptist was born in the summer, when the days are beginning to shorten, and Christ was born in the winter, when the days are gradually getting longer. Little is known of his early years, but Jesus acknowledged him as an important forebear of His ministry. John is generally recognized as the last in the line of Hebrew prophets that led directly to Jesus Christ.
John appears to have withdrawn into the wilderness, wearing camel skins and subsisting on locusts and honey, an existence that became a very popular subject in art. He re-emerged as an itinerant preacher in the valley of the river Jordan in around AD 27. He proclaimed that the coming of the Messiah was imminent, and offered baptism in the Jordan in repentance of sins.
John gathered many followers, among them several who were to become Christ’s Apostles; crucially, he also baptized Jesus. His function as a herald of Jesus is ambiguous. He was evidently something of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, impatient, irascible, and inspired – full of exhortation – and not afraid to use shock and awe to capture his audience.
John’s fate further presages that of Christ: his career was brought to an abrupt end when he was imprisoned and eventually executed on a whim, being beheaded by Herod the Tetrarch, essentially for being a rabble-rouser.
John’s action as a prophet was heroic, even to the point of death; he was also humble in stating that he was not worthy to untie the strap of Christ’s sandal (Mk 1:7). He did not make himself equal to Christ, as St. Augustine points out: “John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal.” There is a message here for us today, when so many Christians do not distinguish between tolerance and the integrity of the faith. The words of Christ to John are also relevant: “Blessed is the man who finds no stumbling block in me” (Mt 11:2-6).
John challenges us Christians to the fundamental attitude of Christianity – total dependence on the Father, in Christ. Except for Mary, no one had a higher function in the unfolding of salvation as John did. Yet the least in the kingdom, Jesus said, is greater than he, for the pure gift that the Father gives. The attractiveness as well as the austerity of John, his fierce courage in denouncing evil – all stem from his fundamental and total placing of his life within the will of God.
Saint John the Baptist, pray for us!
Foley, Leonard, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. “Saint of the Day.” Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.
Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By-Day Illustrated Encyclopedia.” San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar, Updated and Revised.” New York: Alba House, 2012.