The Nativity of St John the Baptist


Saints are nearly always commemorated on the day of their death – their ‘heavenly birthday’ – or in some cases on the date of the translation of their relics from one location to another. It might seem odd, then, that the Nativity of St John the Baptist is celebrated today, 24 June – the only birth of a saint celebrated in bcp1979 (since the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not observed in the Episcopal Church) – and is the only ‘saint’s day’ in that book to have a proper Eve (though in bcp1928 there were many such). The answer to this seeming mystery is that the Nativity is not the proper celebration of St John – the feast of his Decollation (that is, the beheading) on 29 August, also not observed in the Episcopal Church, is his own feast day – but is rather part of the Incarnation cycle, falling six months before Christmas and three after the Annunciation. The feast is very ancient, being originally celebrated (as is the Nativity of Our Lord) with three Masses, though latterly only with a Vigil Mass and Mass of the Day.

The importance of the feast reflects the great importance accorded St John in Scripture, where his illustrious genealogy, the circumstances of his annunciation, miraculous conception, birth, circumcision, ascetical lifestyle, preaching and ministry, imprisonment, and execution are all recounted. He is the last and greatest prophet, the bridge between Old and New Testaments, the morning star heralding the coming light. He is known in the East as the ‘Forerunner’ rather than the ‘Baptizer’, and this is certainly his role in the tradition, where his recurring place in the liturgy – the feast of his Nativity, the daily use at Lauds of the canticle Benedictus Dominus Deus from his birth narrative, his prophetic message in Advent, his presence as ‘friend of the Bridegroom’ at the Baptism of Our Lord (Epiphany) – continually points to the coming of the Savior. The propers of the Roman Office and Mass, then, are all about his calling, with lessons, antiphons, and responsories taken from Jr 1 and Is 49 – in which the respective prophets receive their callings, which are seen to apply to John as well – as well as from the saint’s birth narrative.

The Prayer Book tradition made a number of changes to these readings and provided a new (and excellent) Collect, found at the end of this piece. The focus at the Office is shifted away somewhat from St John’s calling, the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth, and his role as Forerunner of Christ, to his role as prophet and the content of his prophecy: in place of the lessons concerning the calls of Isaiah and Jeremiah are readings from Malachi (the coming messenger) and Is 40 (The voice crying in the wilderness). The Collect, too, is much more comprehensive of John’s life and ministry. (The Prayer Book reforms of the 1920s recaptured something of the sense of the earlier selections with a lesson about Elijah – who is of course closely identified with St John – from Si 48.)

As Christmas more or less coincides with the winter solstice, the Nativity of St John the Baptist coincides with the summer one. Thus in the waxing and waning of the daylight, Nature bears witness to the coming of Christ and John’s message that ‘I must decrease, that he may increase’. The coincidence of this feast and Midsummer Day also means that some pre- and para-Christian customs have made their way into the Church’s celebration: the collection and use of herbs such as St John’s Wort to ward off evil, the making of floral wreaths, and most of all the lighting of bonfires (for which an official Blessing is found in the Roman Ritual), which find a ready place as a symbol of the ‘burning and shining lamp.’

The Prayer Book Collect for the Nativity of St John the Baptist:

Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, after his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord...