Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Today’s festival is one of the oldest in the Church’s history. Usually a saint’s commemoration is on the day of their death when they are as it were born into eternal life. But John’s importance is seen in that this feast celebrates his day of birth. The only other saint who receives such a celebration is the Mother of Jesus (birthday on the 8th of September). Of course, we do not know the actual dates: these ones are chosen to highlight aspects of the story of our salvation. Today is three months after the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary on 25 March (which we are told took place in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy). What is being celebrated is not the literal date but the joyful fact of the birth.
That the feast is held on the 24th of June is probably to do with the medieval love of symbolism. The 24th falls just after the summer solstice which marks the longest day of the year, following which the days begin to shorten. The Medieval Church was reminded of what John said about Christ after he appeared (John 3.30): “He must increase but I must decrease.”
The other great John - St John the Evangelist - tells us in the 4th Gospel that John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus, pointed to him and declared that he was the Lamb of God (John 1.29):
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
For this reason John is often depicted in art pointing at Christ, and with a lamb (first image by Matthias Gruenewald, second by Hans Memling):
John the Baptist shows us the most important truth about being a follower of Christ. Like him, it is to point to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one sent by God to offer his life in sacrifice to take away the sin of the world.
John is a good saint for us in our parish church, located at the heart of Hove, called as we are to point to Christ.
Collect of St John the Baptist
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.