Festival of The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 24, 2012
The Lord be with you
Today is set aside to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. It is actually one of the earliest festivals in the calendar of the church. As it celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, it is an exception to the general principle that the church remembers martyrs on the day of their death. There are two other birthdays celebrated on the LC-MS calendar. The first is that of our Lord Jesus. The second is of Philipp Melanchthon (February 19). I really don’t know why we remember Philipp on his birthday instead of the anniversary of his death, April 19. Some denominations recognize September 8 as the birthday of Mary, the Mother of our Lord.
The feast of the Visitation, when Elisabeth is visited by Mary (see May 31), celebrated the meeting of two related and prospective mothers. June 24 celebrates the birth of the first of the two infants, John the Baptist. It is the next event leading to the incarnation, as God is pictured stirring up his strength to visit and rescue his people. The very name “John” means “God’s gracious gift,” and so even by his name, given by the angel, the forerunner points toward the one who is to come.
The day marks the occasion of the song of Zechariah, used daily at Morning Prayer (or Lauds), for it sings of the sunrise that is dawning upon the world. Each clause of this fourfold proclamation carries us one step further back into antiquity, to remind us that behind the continuity of Israel’s history, now about to reach its climax in the arrival to the long-awaited Messiah, there lies the divine plan, to which God is faithful in spite of the faithlessness and recalcitrance of his human agents. So also the primal certainties of nature—that day dependably follows night— remind us of an order that follows its course, despite the madness of mortals.
John the Baptist was born into a priestly Jewish family several months before the birth of Jesus. Events of his life and teaching are known from accounts in all four Gospels and in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian. According to the Gospels, the birth of John was predicted miraculously to Zechariah and Elizabeth. At his birth the aged father sang the hymn of praise called the Benedictus, the traditional Gospel canticle at the church’s Morning Prayer (as I already said).
John lived “in the desert.” About the year 29 ad, while in the wilderness of Judea, near the Jordan River, John began to preach a call to repentance and a baptismal washing. He gathered a group of disciples; Andrew and probably Peter and John, who later became disciples and then Apostles of Jesus, were among them.
In the course of his preaching, John the Baptist denounced the immoral life of the Herodian rulers. Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned in the huge fortress of Machaerus, which Herod the Great had built in the wilderness east of the Dead Sea. It was there that Herod Antipas had John beheaded. The story of his death has been told again and again in music and in art as well as in the lessons and devotions of the church.
Other days associated with John the Baptist on our calendar are: The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist (August 29) and, of course, he is prominent on Epiphany because it is John who baptizes Jesus.
Prayers – The following four prayers have all been suggested as appropriate for this festival.
Almighty God, through John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, You once proclaimed salvation. Now grant that we may know this salvation and serve You in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
(Treasury of Daily Prayer, LC-MS)
God of justice and grace, you raised up blessed John the Baptist to prepare a holy people for Christ the Lord: Give to your Church gladness of spirit, and guide all who believe in you into the way of salvation and peace; through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
(Leonine sacramentary + 1952 Roman Missal, RS, trans. PHP)
Lord God, heavenly Father, through your servant John the Baptist you bore witness that Jesus Christ is (the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and that all who believe in him shall inherit eternal life: Enlighten us by your Holy Spirit that we may at all times find comfort and joy in this witness, continue steadfast in the true faith, and at last with all believers attain eternal life; through the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.
(Luneburg 1564, CSB, SBH)
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior 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, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.