It’s a rare day that we celebrate a Baptist’s birthday in the Catholic Church.
Today we take a short break in our cycle of Ordinary Time to celebrate the St. John the Baptist’s birthday. It is not every year that we celebrate this solemnity at a weekend Mass, but this year, the 24th of June falls on a Sunday. Usually, when a saint’s day falls on a Sunday, the Sunday takes precedence over the celebration of a Saint. But today is unique in a couple of ways.
Typically, we would celebrate the day a saint died, not the day they were born. In this life, we celebrate our birthdays every year, a reminder of the gift of life that God has generously given to us. But even the date of our birth on earth is just a foretaste, a precursor, to the date of our birth to eternal life. Here, we call that the date of death. In Heaven, they call it your birthday to eternal life.
Now, we already remember the date of John the Baptist’s birth to eternal life on August 29. Why, then, would we celebrate John the Baptist’s other birthday—his birthday on earth? We should note here that there are only three birthdays that the Universal Church celebrates: Our Lord Jesus Christ (Christmas), Our Lady Mary (September 8), and St. John the Baptist. Why these three?
Before I tell you why, there is a clue buried within the gospel reading (from the Vigil Mass). In Luke’s gospel, the angel speaks to Zechariah saying, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. …He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb…” Our Church’s Tradition interprets this verse as indicating that John had already received sanctifying grace even before he was born! That is, God wiped away his original sin and made him a sharer in the graces of Jesus Christ even before his birth.
Now, if this sounds sort of familiar, it’s because we also celebrate another Saint who was saved even before birth. That would be Our Lady, Mary, the Mother of God, who was also born without original sin. And, while both Mary and John the Baptist were born without original sin, only Mary was conceived without original sin. This is why we also celebrate her Immaculate Conception.
So, although we don’t have a day commemorating St. John the Baptist’s conception, we do remember his two birthdays: his birthday on earth, and his birthday to eternal life.
Now that we understand why we are celebrating today, we can ask what we are celebrating today. A birthday, for sure, but it’s much more than that. We are celebrating God’s great initiative in our salvation. We have a God who is so good, so generous, so over abundant in his love, that not only did he create all of us, he also wants to save us.
It would be one thing to simply create the universe—piece of cake for an all-powerful God, who, by the way, also created pieces of cake. Birthday cake. Delicious. But I digress. God, out of the super-abundance of his love, also wanted his creatures to live in his love eternally. That was the way he set it up from the beginning.And so he gave us the gift of free will, a double-edged sword, that made it possible for us to choose love or to choose disobedience. And, as a consequence of this great gift of free will, we messed up. Adam disobeyed. As the ghost of the crusader knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would put it, “He chose… poorly.”
But, O happy fault, O truly necessary sin of Adam, that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer! This God of ours, out of love, himself chose to do yet another act of selflessness in sending his Only-begotten Son to become one of us, to lead us back to the Father. The Eternal Word, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He was born in a quiet little town, exactly six months forward, and six months before this very day. Born in the darkness of the winter, he was the Light that was coming into the world. But the world did not recognize him, even though for centuries, God had been preparing his people for that day by speaking thru his many prophets. We know this because we have many of their writings in our very own Bible. The Old Testament, with all its names that are so foreign and so hard to pronounce, contains the message of salvation that was to come into the world.
Last in the line of these prophets was our very own St. John the Baptist. Like the light that appears before the sunrise, John was the forerunner of the Christ, the Light of the World. John’s entire life was spent preparing the way for the one who would come after him. He was consecrated by the Holy Spirit, even in the womb of Elizabeth, and he even leaped for joy when an expecting Mary came over to visit. He pointed out the Jesus, the Lamb of God, when he approached the place where John was baptizing. And, at the end of his life, John preceded Jesus even in death, being put to death for speaking the truth about marriage and speaking out against adultery.
I wonder if John found it difficult to speak the truth. I wonder if he ever felt pressured by family or friends to “just be normal, like the rest of us. Stop wearing those strange clothes and eat some regular food.” I’m sure John was ostracized in his own day, maybe not by his family, but certainly by many others in society. I wonder if John ever got discouraged, or if he was ever fearful.
Yet, even if he ever experienced these setbacks or troubles, he always stayed faithful to who he was—a prophet. He knew that it was his duty to speak the truth. He knew that this was his life’s purpose. He found meaning in his life, not by looking within himself for happiness and satisfaction, but by looking outward, to our Lord. John the Baptist lived out his vocation, lived up to the purpose of his life, by allowing his relationship with Jesus to define him. John was not concerned with what would prolong his life. He was not concerned with stable living conditions. He was not concerned with what he would wear or what he would eat from day to day. He lost himself in Christ. And in losing his life for Christ’s sake, he found it. He found everlasting life.
There is, of course, a lesson for us all in John the Baptist. For we, too, are called by virtue of our baptism to be prophets. We are drawn to the truth, like flies to honey, and the fullness of truth is found in Jesus Christ. And so, we must stand up for that truth. We must not be afraid to speak the truth in our daily lives, whether it’s standing up for the definition of marriage among our coworkers, or speaking to our family members who are ensnared in the sin of adultery. We must love truth more than our own lives. For our lives must come to an end one day, but the truth lives on forever.
Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you’ve never heard of it, then it’s something you already know by way of intuition. It basically says this: Our most basic needs must be met first, before we pursue higher needs. At the very base of this hierarchy are things like food, shelter, clothing. Then comes safety. Then comes a feeling of belonging. Then comes esteem and recognition from others. Finally comes what Maslow called “self-actualization.” I think most of us operate under this schema in our daily lives.
But John the Baptist says to Maslow, “That’s OK, God’s got this. Think I need food, shelter, and clothing? I got locusts and camel hair. Safety? What for? I’ll put myself at risk for the truth. Belonging? I belong to God, and besides, if I can’t live in town, there’s a perfectly good desert out there for me to live in. Esteem? Again, God seems to like me… that’s enough for me. Self-actualization? I have the most important mission anyone could ever have, and I didn’t come up with it myself. I am called by God to prepare the way for his Son! Who needs self-actualization?!”
John the Baptist did not fit the modern psychological mold. He flew in the face of what psychologists say that we all need. But John was not a crazy person; John was not suffering from anti-social behavior. Rather, John knew that he already had all of his needs met in God. The lesson for us, who have all the same human needs as any other person, is that our self-fulfillment, our purpose, comes not from an empty sense of self-satisfaction. It comes from our identity and mission that comes from God.
You, Christian, are an adopted son/daughter of God, a brother/sister of Jesus Christ, called by him to bear witness to the truth, just like John the Baptist.
John the Baptist, called the prophet of the Most High, has gone before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, John the Baptist, the dawn from on high, has broken upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
 Luke 1:13, 15