Forerunner of Christ
St. John the Baptist
It is the day people go out into the streets to throw water at each other and at unsuspecting passersby in San Juan and some parts of Manila. In Aliaga, Nueva Ecija it is the day of the Taong Putik Festival wherein devotees cover themselves with mud and dried leaves and go in procession. Lechons in costumes are paraded in Balayan, Batangas also on that day. For spectators and viewers on TV there is danger that they get trapped by the fanfare and forget about the real reason for the celebrations. All these celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Yes, it’s the Baptist’s birthday and it is the only birthday other than Jesus’ that is celebrated as a solemnity in the Church ever since patristic times. (Mama Mary’s birthday is only a feast that began to be celebrated around the 7th Century). In addition to his nativity, his death by beheading is also celebrated as a memorial every August 29. This gives us an impression of how important a figure John the Baptist was.
Here are 6 interesting things to know about St. John the Baptist and the feast of his nativity:
1. He is the only person other than Jesus whose life from birth to death is described in the Gospels.
St Luke in his Gospel gives us an account of the Baptist’s infancy beginning even with the announcement of the angel to Zechariah that Elizabeth his wife will bear a son in their old age. It was a miraculous pregnancy and birth in all respect and we know that the Virgin Mary came to the aid of the elderly Elizabeth in this time. The next thing we know is that “the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Lk 1:80). Imagine living alone in the desert wearing camel skin, eating locusts and honey. And then out of obscurity he came out as “a voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord.” He was preaching about repentance and baptizing. Jesus came to John to be baptized by him. Lastly, we know that he was imprisoned for rebuking Herod’s immorality and ultimately succumbed to dying a martyr’s death by beheading.
2. The date of the liturgical feast of his nativity is at the exact opposite time of Christmas.
June 24 is 6 months before December 25. During the Visitation which was some time after the Annunciation, St Luke tells us that Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant. We celebrate the feast of Annunciation on March 25 and three months later the Nativity of John the Baptist. If Mary was 3 months pregnant on June 24 then naturally she would have given birth to Jesus 6 months later around December 25. Of course, we do not have any historical record of the actual dates of their birth but it makes sense to celebrate them logically accurate. More interesting is the placement of these dates on opposite times of the year. June 24 is at the time of summer solstice and Christmas is at the time of winter solstice. (Summer solstice is when daytime is the longest in the year and winter solstice is the day when night time is longest.) This means that as we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist we experience the start of day time becoming shorter and shorter. This reminds us of John’s own words, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
3. John the Baptist is the bridge between the Old and the New Testaments.
For this let us take the explanation of St. Augustine in a sermon:
“John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is a sort of boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb. You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary’s arrival he leapt in his mother’s womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. These are divine matters, and exceed the measure of human frailty.” (Office of Readings for June 24)
4. Also known as the Forerunner and Precursor, his whole mission was to point to Jesus.
St. John the Baptist was famous in his time even drawing many followers. All the while, however, he would say something like “it’s not me, it’s Him.” He was from the beginning destined to be the “prophet of the most high, who will go before the Lord to prepare His way.” He pointed out to Jesus saying, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Sounds familiar? Yes, those are the same words we hear at every Mass when the priest raises the bread that has become the Body of Christ. It calls us to turn our gaze to Jesus who alone can save us.
5. He was persecuted as a political prisoner.
After he completed his mission of announcing and introducing Jesus as the Messiah, he continued to play a prophetic role in society. He spoke truth to power, telling Herod that divorcing his wife and marrying Herodias, his sister-in-law, is immoral (Mt 14:3). For this Herod arrested him. At the request of Herodias through her daughter, Herod ordered John to be beheaded. Up to this day we know how dangerous speaking truth to power can be. Thankfully, we have not run out of prophets who are brave enough like John. Indeed all of us too are called to be likewise and we can by the grace of God.
6. Bautista was not his family name, it was his mission.
In the Philippines, Bautista is a pretty common family name. But one wonders, how many of the Bautistas actually perform baptism? Kidding aside, we know the name is taken from St. John the Baptist or San Juan Bautista in Spanish. St. John the Baptist is called the Baptist not because baptizing was all he ever did, it was because baptizing Jesus at the Jordan was the pinnacle of his mission. During their encounter at the Jordan, John was finally able to introduce to his followers Jesus as the Messiah whom they have been waiting for.
Baptism comes from a Greek word that means immersing or plunging into the water. In the Jewish tradition it was a form of cleansing ritual for those who have repented of their sins. Jesus did not need to be baptized and John knew this, so he hesitated at first. Church Fathers later explain it as an occasion set by God to proclaim to the world that Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Recall that when Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and a voice proclaimed Jesus as the Beloved Son.
If you are a Bautista you better live up to the name you carry. Not by going about baptizing in the banks of Ilog Pasig but by becoming brave proclaimers of Good News that is Jesus Christ. This is also true to all of us believers. Let us have faith and point to Jesus those who are in darkness specially in these troubled times. St. John the Baptist points us to Jesus. So next time you pass by San Juan on a June 24 or see the Taong Putik on TV remember the Baptist pointing us to the Lord. With blessed hope we await Jesus who will come again. While we wait let us, like John, prepare the way of the Lord.