Today the church celebrates the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Christ’s forerunner. Last week Allison Liles shared how she will celebrate the feast with art and a Grasshopper Pie.
St. John the Baptist is unlike many saints on our calendar, because we celebrate his ministry on the day of his birth rather than the day of his death. His birth is worth celebrating. The entire first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke is primarily the story which leads to this feast day:
- Elizabeth and Zechariah, though blameless before God, have no children;
- Zechariah is visited by an angel of the Lord who foretells the birth of a child to be named John;
- Zechariah questions the prophecy and is struck dumb;
- Elizabeth does conceive, six months before Mary herself is given a child by the Holy Spirit;
- Mary visits Elizabeth and offers her song of praise to God (later called the Magnificat);
- Elizabeth gives birth and declares the child will be named John;
- Zechariah agrees, writing John’s name and regaining his ability to speak;
- Zechariah offers his song of praise to God (later called the Benedictus Dominus Deus).
And the infant John arrives in the world, ready to turn it upside down (as Bishop Curry would say: which is right side up again). (Read all of Luke 1 here.)
We know what comes next: his own preaching, the ministry of baptism he offers for repentance and forgiveness of sins, his baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan, his challenging teachings, his imprisonment by Herod and his beheading. We know and honor his whole story today.
This feast day means, among other things, that Christmas is six months away, because John was six months older than Jesus: the one who fully and finally turned the world right side up again.
The image below of St. John’s nativity is from a birth tray about five hundred years old. Birth trays were a traditional gift to a woman who has safely delivered a child in Florence and Siena around that time: an early “push present” in a time where a living mother and child could not in any way be taken for granted.
What strikes me is both how ordinary and how extraordinary this scene is:
Attended by women, recently delivered of her first and only child, Elizabeth looks on as her husband writes his name. The Scripture says that she had already decided to name her son John; now, her husband is about to agree. Just as we fill out birth certificates, he has formed the second letter of John’s name.
Why did naming this child John matter? The name “John” is our modern English version of the name which Elizabeth and Zechariah would have used, Johanan. The name means “God is gracious.” If there is one thing John the Baptist preached and practiced, it was the grace of God. We remember him not only for his deeds but also his words, among them:
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Because God in grace has provided for us, we are generous to provide for others. There is always a very practical aspect to repentance and salvation. St. John the Baptist knew that — and so do we.
A Prayer for this Day
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, for ever and ever.
What strikes you about the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist?