Looking Ahead: Celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

I am looking ahead to this feast on June 24th, not least to flag a (for me, deeply disappointing) experience last year when at Mass on this day. What troubled me was that the whole liturgy, including the hymns we sang, seemed to focus on the adult John the Baptist and his ministry, especially his baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. Not only do we have other feasts that focus on the man John the Baptist in the liturgical year (e.g., his baptism of Jesus, and his beheading at the hands of Herod), but by not marking June 24th as the Nativity of John, we also miss a number of important elements inscribed into this feast.

To begin with the Scriptures: in the Gospel of Luke, Elizabeth’s pregnancy is linked with the pregnancy of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the timing of the feast on June 24th mirrors that: six months before we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate the birth of the forerunner-in-birth. In other words, it is important to celebrate the birth of John on June 24th. Moreover, in the Gospel reading, John’s mother Elizabeth speaks one of the two most important words ever attributed to a woman in Scripture (and our Scriptures give far less space to women’s voices than to men’s voices, so every word uttered by a woman counts!). I for one delight in Elizabeth’s simple, decisive, defiant “no,” spoken in response to those who wanted to name her son after his father. Imagine the courage it must have taken to defy the patrilineal tradition of her time like that. I imagine Elizabeth’s courage similar to that of the unmarried Mary, saying her “yes” to bearing God’s son.

Moving from the Scriptures to visual art: many of the images and paintings of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, in both East and West, foreground women-identified scenes, often showing Elizabeth with female attendants and/or visitors who come to pay their respects. In addition, tradition suggests that Mary might have been present at the birth of John the Baptist and even served as midwife, given that Luke tells us she stayed with Elizabeth for three months, after arriving at Elizabeth’s home in the sixth month of the old woman’s pregnancy.

Popular piety too has marked this feast day in various ways, not least because it lies in close proximity to the summer solstice (in Europe). Bonfires especially were, and in some regions continue to be, a prominent marker of the feast day.

Finally, to the hymns which we might sing at Mass on June 24th . If there are any contemporary hymns that celebrate this birth of John by Elizabeth, the prophet [and she clearly is styled as that in Luke], let me know. If you are a gifted hymn-writer and want to have a go at writing a new text, make my day. If you want to draw everybody’s attention to John Mason Neale’s translation of the Venerable Bede’s “The great forerunner of the morn,” thank you. If you can suggest other hymn texts appropriate for the day – that is, ones that focus on the birth of John the Baptist – let us know.

Here is to hoping that this year, the birth of John the Baptist will be celebrated on June 24th.

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