The Feast of the
Saint John the Baptist,
St. John the Baptist, the kinsman of Jesus and the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, is the only saint other than the Virgin Mary whose birthday is celebrated by the Church in a liturgical feast. Other saints are remembered by the day of their death when they entered the kingdom of heaven.
Like the announcement of the birth of the Savior, St. John's birth was announced by the archangel Gabriel (Dan 8:16; 9:21; Lk 1:19, 26). John's father received the news of his son's impending birth while he was serving in his priestly duties at the Temple in Jerusalem. Since the time of King David, the descendants of Aaron, who were the priests of the Sinai Covenant, were divided into twenty-four clans of priests (1 Chr 24:7-17 [8-18]). All the twenty-four clans served in the Temple during the celebrations of the three great pilgrim feasts: the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread, The Feast of Weeks (which was also known in the Greek language as Pentecost), and the week-long Feast of Shelters (also called Tabernacles) (Ex 23:14-17; Deut 16:5-17; 2 Chr 8:13), but during ordinary time in the liturgical calendar, each priestly clan took turns serving in the Temple for one week from Sabbath to Sabbath. It was during the weekly course of the priestly clan of Abijah (1 Chr 24:11; Lk 1:5), when the priest Zechariah was chosen by the drawing of lots to be the one with the honor of lighting the golden Altar of Incense which stood in front of the Holy of Holies. This honor was probably a once-in-a-life-time event for a priest. It was the during the daily Tamid service (Ex 29:38-42; Num 28:4-10; Sir 50:1-21), when the designated priest lights the golden Altar of Incense with coals from the sacrificial alter and prepares to burn the sacred incense (Ex 30:1-9), that the angel suddenly approached Zechariah: Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense (Lk 1:8-11).
The angel boldly announced to the elderly priest that God had heard his prayers, and he and his barren wife would become the parents of a son. The angel instructed the terrified Zechariah that he was to name this child Yohanan (John), which means "Yahweh is gracious" in Hebrew. Then the angel told Zechariah that the child would be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, and his life would be dedicated entirely to God's service in the spirit of the great prophet Elijah (Lk 1:13-17).
When Zechariah protested in disbelief, the angel silenced the priest'striking him dumb and telling him that his inability to speak would continue until the birth of the child. However, just before silencing Zechariah, the angel revealed his name: And the angel answered him, I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God (Lk 1:19). The revelation of the name of the angel was all Zechariah needed, coupled with the reference to the prophet Elijah, to understand the significance of the birth of his son and the promise of the Anointed One who was to follow. This was the same angel who revealed the coming of "the end" to the prophet Daniel (Dan 8:16) and prophesied to Daniel, at the time of the afternoon* Tamid sacrifice (Dan 9:21), the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah (Dan 9:25-26). All the promises of the prophets concerning the coming of the Messiah and the events that would announce His coming must have filled the mind of the old priest. According to the prophet Malachi, it would be in the spirit of the prophet Elijah that one chosen by God would be sent to herald the coming of the Messiah (Mal 3:1-5; 4:5-6 [3:23-24]). Zechariah now understood that his son was the one who was promised to prepare the covenant people to receive their Messiah-king who would come to fulfill the promises made to the Patriarchs and to establish and everlasting Davidic kingdom of the New Israel (Gen 12:1-3; 28:14; 2 Sam 7:16; Dan 2:44).
According to the Tradition of the Church, John, the last of the Old Testament prophets, was born June the 24th circa 3/2 BC. He was thirty years old when he began his mission to call the covenant people to a baptism (ritual purification) of repentance in order to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah and the promised "new covenant" (Jer 31:31-34). St. Luke recorded that John was thirty years old in the fifteenth year of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea (26 – 36 AD). The Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar died on the 19th of August in 14 AD. He was succeeded by his adopted step-son Tiberius. The fifteenth year of Tiberius' reign therefore was from the 19th of August 28 AD to the 19th of August 29 AD. Thirty years earlier gives the date of 3/2 BC (depending upon whether the year is counted from the liturgical year in the spring or the civil year in the fall). Scripture tells us that John was six months older than Jesus (Lk 1:36-37). Since the early fourth century AD the Church has celebrated Jesus' birthday in a special Christ-Mass on December the 25th and St. John's birthday six months earlier on June the 24th.
*The "afternoon" Tamid service was an "evening" service for the Old Covenant people; the lamb was sacrificed at the ninth hour (3PM: Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14.4.3) and the liturgical service ended at about the eleventh hour (5PM). The next day began at sundown and therefore from noon onwards until sundown the day descended into evening.
Michal Hunt © 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved
From a Sermon on
the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist
by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 AD)
"The Church observes the birth of John as in some way sacred; and you will not find any other of the great men of old whose birth we celebrate officially. We celebrate John's, as we celebrate Christ's. This point cannot be passed over in silence, and if I may not perhaps be able to explain it in the way that such an important matter deserves, it is still worth thinking about it a little more deeply and fruitfully than usual.
John is born of an old woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. That John will be born is not believed, and his father is struck dumb; that Christ will be born is believed, and he is conceived by faith.
I have proposed some matters for inquiry, and listed in advance some things that need to be discussed. I have introduced these points even if we are not up to examining all the twists and turns of such a great mystery, either for lack of capacity or for lack of time. You will be taught much better by the one who speaks in you even when I am not here; the one about whom you think loving thoughts, the one whom you have taken into your hearts and whose temple you have become.
John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is somehow or other a boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother's womb. You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary's arrival he leapt in his mother's womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. These are divine matters, and exceed the measure of human frailty. Finally, he is born, he receives a name, and his father's tongue is loosed.
Zachary is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lord's forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. What does Zachary's silence mean, but that prophecy was obscure and, before the proclamation of Christ, somehow concealed and shut up? It is released and opened up by his arrival, it becomes clear when the one who was being prophesied is about to come. The releasing of Zachary's voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. If John were meant to proclaim himself, he would not be opening Zachary's mouth. The tongue is released because a voice is being born – for when John was already heralding the Lord, he was asked, 'Who are you?' and he replied, 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.'
John is the voice, but the Lord 'in the beginning was the Word.' John is a voice for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning."
This is from a sermon by Saint Augustine of Hippo (Sermon 293, 1-3; PL 38, 1327-1328) and is used in the Roman Office of Readings for June 24, on the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist.
Michal Hunt © 2008 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved