The Birth of John the Baptist

The Birth of John the Baptist

Today, June 17, is the first Ordinary Time Sunday we have celebrated since Lent began in February. Although Ordinary Time resumes after Pentecost, the Sundays following Pentecost are celebrated as Trinity Sunday and The Body and Blood of Christ. But we are not back in the routine of the ‘counted’ Sundays of the liturgical year just yet! This year the solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist on 24th June falls on a Sunday, so next Sunday we celebrate that feast in place of the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time. Because the feast is classed as a solemnity, it takes precedence over a Sunday in Ordinary Time.

It is unusual to be commemorating the birthday of a saint instead their day of death which is considered to be the date of their birth into eternal life. The only other ‘births’ in the liturgical calendar are, of course, the nativity of Christ and the birth of the Virgin Mary on 8th September.

According to tradition, John the Baptist was endowed with grace at the time of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, John’s mother, so the feast of his nativity was considered to be of greater solemnity than that of his death. From the late 4th century, the feast has been celebrated on 24th June, 6 months before the birth of Jesus.

Mass texts and readings are provided for a Vigil as well as the Mass of the day for this feast, so those who lead and prepare the liturgy will need to decide which texts will be used at Saturday evening Masses and, of course, convey this decision to the liturgical ministers involved.

The liturgical colour for the feast is white, not red as is usual with the feast of martyrs. The death of John the Baptist is recalled in the calendar as a memorial on 29th August. The colour for that day is red.

The psalm of the day for the feast is the moving Psalm 138: “O Lord, you search me and you know me..”. The words of the psalm are applied to John whom God called from birth to be a light to the nations (first reading). This is the only time Psalm 138 appears in the cycle of Sunday readings, so liturgy planners need to make the most of the opportunity to sing this wonderful psalm.

The Benedictus (“Blessed be the God of Israel”), the prayer of John’s father Zechariah at the birth of his son, would be appropriate to use next Sunday, perhaps as a hymn of praise after communion or during the Procession of Gifts. This canticle is used every day in Morning Prayer, so there are many musical settings of the text that are suitable for the assembly to sing.

The spirit of the feast is expressed well in these words from the preface of the day: “We honour the prophet who prepared the way before your Son. You set John the Baptist apart, marking him out with special favour. His birth brought great rejoicing…
You chose John the Baptist from all the prophets to show the world its redeemer, the lamb of sacrifice… You found John worthy of a martyr’s death, his last and greatest act of witness to your Son.”


Elizabeth Harrington