The Readings for the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist
There is no one among your relatives who has this name.Luke 1:61 (NABRE)
HOLY MOTHER CHURCH Celebrates three people especially, noting their conceptions as well as their births and deaths: Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. (The Baptist’s Conception on 23 September is celebrated now only in the Eastern rites.) These three must be holy folks indeed if literally their entire life is enclosed in feast days! Jesus, we can understand. Our Protestant brethren may disagree on Mary, but she is the Mother of God, after all. But why John?
The people in the local community say “no one in your family has this name”. This is an important code: in the Jewish tradition you name a child after a dead relative. (To name them after someone living would be to wish the living person dead.) The Community is saying to Elizabeth, “You’re not honoring anyone’s memory.” And she’s saying, “Yes, you’re right. This is an entirely new gift from God.” (Jonathan means gift of God.)
This birth is a hinge between the Old and the New, both being needed: the proclamation makes possible the fulfillment. The fulfillment arises from the hope proclaimed. The parents know that the Messiah is nearly here.
John is always depicted on icon screens in the Eastern Churches and he is always to the right of Jesus on the icon called the “Deesis” or “Supplication”.
In the Verses skipped by today’s Gospel reading, John’s Father calls him the “prophet of the most high”. That’s from the Canticle of Zachariah which the western Church prays every day at Lauds. Where have we heard something like that before? Rather recently, actually, by way of liturgical coincidence, we heard the story of Melchizedek, priest of God Most High. John is Prophet of the Most High. Jesus, of course, is the Most High God. John is the one “preparing his way”.
Looking again at the Deesis icon above, it seems that it can be read as the OT (reading from right to left in Hebrew) in the person of John, together with the NT in the person of Mary, interceding for us to Jesus. The last man of the OT with the first woman of the NT, both praying to God the Most High.
Today’s birth of something entirely new is placed (by the Church’s calendar) on the longest day of the year (as it was once calculated). The thing about this day is that every day after today is shorter than the day before. The Sun is losing it’s power. The pagan, solar gods are passing away as of today. John is the hinge of between old and new even outside of the Jewish tradition.
John’s birth (in Europe) is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks. I wish we did so here!
Today is the day to let the old things pass away so that God can bring something new out of the old world you’ve lived in. He will give you a new name that is not honoring anyone in the past, but rather proclaiming your new life in him.
It’s a free gift.