The following is excerpted from Steve Bell’s Pilgrim Year: Ordinarytide. This particular text is written by guest contributor Amy Knight who lives in Winnipeg and works doing concert and product administration for Signpost Music. Pilgrim Year is an online, multi-media collection of devotionals related to the Christian calendar year. Available collections include Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide and Ordinarytide. To learn more and to access the collections visit www.PilgrimYear.com
Normally the church celebrates a saint on the day that he or she died (with death symbolizing true birth into heaven). There are only three exceptions to this rule: the church celebrates the birthdays of Jesus, his mother Mary, and his cousin John the Baptist. Of these, only the birth accounts of John and Jesus are recorded in the Bible. And although we don’t know the exact date of any of these births, the ancient tradition of the church calendar has wisely and beautifully evolved over the centuries to fuel the devout imagination with its thoughtful seasonal symbolism and interlinkage of events.
Thus, the nativity of John the Baptist is commemorated on June 24th: three months after the feast of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy, and six months before the Christmas celebration of Jesus’ own nativity. Originally this feast was a day of rest celebrated with three Masses, and it is among the oldest festivals of the Christian church, being mentioned several times by St. Augustine in his sermons and in a Martyrology written around 440 A.D. (falsely attributed to St. Jerome). As the first day of summer, Saint John’s Day is considered in ancient folklore to be one of the great “charmed” festivals of the year. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius warned against midsummer activities and encouraged new converts to avoid them in favour of the celebration of John the Baptist’s birth. On the eve of his feast throughout much of Europe, “Saint John’s fires” are still lighted on mountains and hilltops, and various herbs are gathered and hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits.
It seems that John the Baptist cannot help but draw the masses to him, even now. What is it about John that makes him so curiously enticing? Personally, I have always found him a bit perplexing. I can’t exactly relate to his extreme asceticism ; wandering in the wilderness clothed in animal skins and eating locusts isn’t a lifestyle I’m particularly familiar with. John’s austerity seems so far from the joy that was promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth at the announcement of his birth. And what became of his parents’ joy when they learned of his gruesome death by the hand of Herod?
Yet he won such a following. What was it that compelled others to seek John in the wilderness, to be baptized by his strong, well-worn hands? What depth of soul was reflected in his eyes as he announced the nearness of God’s kingdom foretold by the prophet Isaiah?
Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for Him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation. (Luke 3: 4-6)
This simple proclamation must have contained immeasurable hope for a people who were weary with waiting for the Messiah. I can imagine the hesitant questions they surely asked themselves: “Can it be true that God might lift us up at last, we who are crushed and weighed down, we who are aching with the barrenness of our hearts?”
Despite the difficult circumstances that would befall his life, John’s birth indeed heralded joy. Not only did it alleviate the shame of infertility for his aging parents, but it assuaged the fundamental barrenness that was gnawing away at all God’s children. John represents the climax of the long tradition of Jewish prophets looking forward to the promised deliverance. Through his life in the wilderness—through his renunciation of the comforts of family life, rich food and drink, safe shelter and protective clothing—he became the last and strongest voice of the Old Covenant, completely dedicated to his mission of preaching, of calling people to an observance of the law, and to the essential standards of virtue. Consequently, Jesus proclaims that “no man born of woman is greater than John.” In terms of natural goodness, this does seem to be true. However, Jesus goes on to say that “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John” (Matthew 11:11). John’s birth cleared a passageway for the New Covenant that would usher in redemptive freedom, finally, for all time and for all peoples. Now, anyone who has been born anew into the kingdom of grace has something better than what John symbolizes.
“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). It seems that John, whose birth is commemorated at the autumnal equinox, understood implicitly how his days must grow shorter, how the leaves of his life must fall from the trees as the night steadily encroached. Inversely, we celebrate Jesus’ birth at the vernal equinox, when the days are growing longer with the light of Christ that nourishes fresh blossoms. And while John’s life was full of bitterness and weeping, his tears gave way to the joy that comes in the morning, at the dawn of this new age.
By setting this example, John leads us in the way of watching and waiting. He teaches us how to find joy in the present even while we ache for its future completion—to taste the sweetness (like honey) of Christ’s arrival in the midst of our hunger. For just as John’s prophesies where fulfilled when Christ came to dwell with us, and dwells with us still as the Holy Spirit, we still long for Christ’s return, to be with Him. Can we, too, walk this way that John prepared? Can we proclaim, along with his father Zechariah, the tender mercies of our God for those who know only shame? Can we offer a strong, well-worn hand to others as we journey toward the rising sun that shines on those living in darkness, and let Him guide our feet into the path of peace? (Luke 1:76-79)
Unlike Zechariah or Mary, most of us will never receive a visit from the angel Gabriel telling us not to fear, or describing clearly the path we must now walk. In the song below, however, Jim Croegaert’s lyrics express the indwelt knowledge that our prayers for courage and guidance—those that we often can’t even express with words—have nonetheless been answered. John (Yohanan) means “Yahweh is gracious.” Indeed, John points to the way of grace, and to the One who will impart us with this grace for the road that lies ahead.
The Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:76-79)
music and lyrics by Jim Croegaert
(Sony Cross Keys Publishing / Molto Bravo Music)
performed by Steve Bell
I have not seen the angel Gabriel
Standing at the right side of the altar
Saying that important line of angels
“Do not be afraid”
I have not heard the angel Gabriel
Telling me my prayer has been answered
That my heart’s desire has been granted
And my wife will bear a son
But I have been answered
And I have been promised
In words that cannot be spoken
And the tender mercies of our God
Have caused the rising son to shine upon us
To guide our feet into the path of peace
I was not there when the angel Gabriel
Visited the village of Nazareth
Home of a young maiden he addressed
As the highly favoured one
I did not hear the angel Gabriel
Promise what could not be imagined
Answered by a faith without fathom
“Let what you have said be done”
“The Church solemnizes three births, namely, those of John the Baptist, the Blessed Mary, and Christ. And indeed John was the morning-star, for just as the morning-star precedes the sun, so he preceded Christ; for he preached Him first. Mary was the dawn. The birth of Christ was the rising of the sun, because in Him the splendor of the Father appeared.” —William Durandus