John the Baptist’s Birth Points to the Coming Salvation of God Through Christ
User’s Guide to Sunday, June 24
Sunday, June 24, is the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Mass Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 139:1-3, 13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80.
Today the Church celebrates the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which is a rather unique solemnity in the life of the Church. After all, John is the only saint besides the Blessed Virgin Mary whose birth we celebrate in the liturgy.
Our Lord himself provides the reasoning behind this exalted celebration: “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Yet this gives rise to the question: In what exactly did John’s greatness consist? On the one hand, we could point to his great humility, which is summed up in his attitude toward Christ: “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” (Mark 1:7; John 1:27), and “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). On the other hand, we could look to his total commitment — even to the point of death (Mark 6:14-27; Matthew 14:1-12) — to his mission of preparing the people for the coming of the Lord (Luke 1:17). Indeed, it is for these reasons that we revere John the Baptist as the last and greatest of all the prophets.
But there is another aspect of John’s greatness that we would do well to consider, especially on this feast day: He was great not because of what he himself did, but because of what God chose to do in him from the day of his birth. We can come to appreciate this aspect of John the Baptist’s greatness when we compare the description of his conception and birth to that of the prophet Isaiah in the first reading. There, the prophet proclaims: “Before birth the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he gave me my name” (Isaiah 49:1) and also that God “formed me as his servant from the womb” (Isaiah 49:5). These words make clear that even though he only began to prophesy as an adult, the prophet’s entire life — from the very first moment of his existence — is ordered toward service to God in the proclamation of his message.
The depiction of John the Baptist’s birth is steeped in similar language: He is depicted as a new Elijah upon whom God’s hand rests and who has been called from birth to prepare God’s people for the Messiah (Luke 1:57-66, 80). Yet John the Baptist also surpasses previous prophets like Isaiah because he is not only called from the womb to be a prophet but he actually begins his prophetic ministry in the womb. John’s preparatory activity can already be seen in the Visitation when his joyful leap announces to Elizabeth the presence of her Lord. Further, John’s birth is itself a miraculous sign since he was born to a woman who was known to be barren (Luke 1:7, 36-37). John’s conception and birth point to the coming salvation of God through Christ, and those who witness John’s birth are already being prepared for this new reality (Luke 1:64-66). John’s birth thus highlights the primacy of God’s action in bringing about salvation. The greatness of John the Baptist is, then, much like that of the Blessed Mother: It is a greatness that consists primarily in his fiat, that is, his “Yes” to God and to the work that God had already begun in him.
Every Catholic can, therefore, learn from John the Baptist. Since it is God who continues the work of salvation in each one of us, we ought to adopt an attitude of true humility, while at the same time faithfully cooperating with the grace of Christ to prepare ourselves and others to receive the salvation of God.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
This column was updated after posting.