To render honor the saint who, according to Christ Himself, is the greatest of the prophets (Mt. 11:11), the Church instituted a special feast. The Gospels themselves are our sources for the life of St. John, and of these St. Luke’s is the most complete, giving the circumstances of St. John’s birth, ministry and death. The father of John the Baptist was Zachary, a priest of the course of Abia. His mother, Elizabeth, “was of the daughters of Aaron” (Lk. 1:5). St. Luke describes the birth of St. john in a most striking manner. Zachary and Elizabeth “were both just before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. But they had no son, for Elizabeth was barren; and they were both advanced in years” (Lk. 1:6-7). But they prayed that their marriage be blessed with offspring and, St. Luke continues: “Now it came to pass, while he was officiating in the order of his course as a priest before God, according to the custom of the priest’s office, that he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense. A whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him ‘Do not be afraid, Zachary, for your petition has been heard and your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son and you shall call his name John. And you shall have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great before the Lord; he shall drink no wine or strong drink, and shall be filled with Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he shall bring back to the Lord their God many of the children of Israel’” (Lk. 1:8-16). Zachary was somewhat slow to believe his message and in punishment for his incredulity was struck dumb until the promise was fulfilled.
Nothing can be said with certainty as to the date of the birth of St. John the Baptist. The Gospel suggests that he was born about six months before Christ.
The commemoration of St. John’s nativity is one of the older, if not the oldest, feasts in honor of any saint found in either the Byzantine or Roman Liturgies. Ordinarily the Church observes the day of a saint’s death because that day marks his entrance into heaven. St. John is an exception to this rule because he “was filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,” which means he was born without original sin. His nativity, therefore is already a day of triumph.
The feast of St. John’s birth is mentioned in the sermons of St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine. In the fifth century we even find churches erected in his honor. In the seventh century St. Andrew of Crete composed beautiful hymns honoring the nativity of Christ’s Forerunner, and St. John Damascene, in the eight century, enriched the liturgy with poetic sticheras and hymns in honor of St. John.
In the course of time, a regular cycle of festivals in honor of St. John the Baptist came into existence. The date of his birth, for instance, was fixed from the assigned to our Lord, falling six months before Christmas. Nine months earlier came the date of conception, and on August 29 his beheading was celebrated. The conception of St. John was especially celebrated in the East and appears in the calendars of Calcasendi and the Syrians, in the Neapolitan calendar, in the Mozarable calendar, in the Greek calendars and in both the menology of Constantinople and that of St. Basil. The menology is the ecclesiastical calendar in the Byzantine Rite. It explains the nature of each feast, fast, and generally all the liturgical matters concerning each day.
With the discovery of his relics, the cult of St. John the Baptist received a great impetus throughout the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries. The historical records of the Church contain much information concerning both the discovery and the translation of these relics, but they also give rise to the insoluble difficulties – among others, the fact that, there are now several relics of his head.
The Liturgy of the day repeatedly recalls St. John’s miraculous birth. “O prophet and forerunner of Christ’s coming, we who devotedly honor you are unable to fittingly extol you, for through your glorious and noble birth, your mother’s childlessness was ended, your father’s tongue was released and the incarnation of the Son of God was proclaimed to the world” (troparion). The kontakion refers again to the miraculous character of his birth: “She who was previously barren gives birth to the forerunner of Christ…”
Next Feast Days
|April 23||Feast of St. George, the Great Martyr|
|June 24||Nativity of St. John the Baptist|
|June 29||Feasts of Saints Peter and Paul|
|July 20||Feast of the Prophet Elias|