The Nativity of St John the Baptist

The Nativity of St John the Baptist

This year the 24th June falls on a Sunday, so we celebrate the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist 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 of 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 the nativity of Christ and the birth of the Virgin Mary on 8th September.

According to tradition, John the Baptist was endowed with special 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.

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 spirit of the feast is expressed well in these phrases from the Preface of the day which bears the title “The mission of the Precursor”:
His birth brought great rejoicing…
He alone of all the prophets pointed out the Lamb of redemption…
He baptised the very author of Baptism …
to bear him supreme witness by the shedding of his blood.
The first reading at Mass on the day is part of the second of Isaiah’s Servant Songs in which God calls the servant (and Israel herself) to be a beacon for God’s universal redemption. John the Baptist is a bridge between the old covenant and the new, between the people of Israel and the Church.
The psalm of the day is the moving Psalm 138: “O Lord, you search me and you know me”. The words 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 make the most of the opportunity to sing this wonderful psalm!
It is interesting that in the southern hemisphere we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist at the time of the winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky, while Christmas falls at the summer solstice, when the sun is highest. This seems nicely to reflect the fact that John’s role is as someone who decreases as Christ increases (Jn 3:29-30).
Paul reminds us of this in the second reading: “Before John ended his career he said, ‘I am not the one you imagine me to be; that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal.’”
O God, who raised up Saint John the Baptist
to make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord,
give your people, we pray, the grace of spiritual joys
and direct the hearts of all the faithful
into the way of salvation and peace. (Collect, Mass during the Day)


Elizabeth Harrington