The Solemnity of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist challenges us in a particular way if we understand what the Church offers us in the celebration of the Feast. When the Church celebrates a Solemnity (highest level of festival) which also includes a special Vigil Eucharistic Liturgy for the evening before, we are invited to pay attention to the celebration and consider what such a festival means for us in grace. There are only six of these celebrations in the liturgical year. Three of them are obvious both in the central importance of the specific mystery they invite us to experience and in their importance in expressing the whole of the Paschal Mystery that is at the heart of all Christian Liturgy: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost each have Vigil Eucharistic liturgies (celebrated the night before) that are distinct rites from the Masses for the three Feast days. Three other less obvious solemnities also have Eucharistic Vigils and they well might surprise us: The Nativity of John the Baptist (June 24), the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), and the Assumption of Mary into heaven (August 15). Note that none of the other major and minor feasts such as the nativity of the Blessed Mother (September 8), the Conception of Jesus, that is the Annunciation, March 25, and the “big” Christological Feasts of Christ the King, The Feast of the Body and Blood, and Holy Trinity, nor all other Marian or saints days have Eucharistic Vigils.
Why do these six celebrations call attention to the task of “waiting in joyful hope” when other solemnities do not?
I think a clue can be found in the question “for what common grace do we wait in these celebrations?” I would suggest that the answer is they mark a pivotal step in the implementation of the “plan of God hidden for generations past and now revealed” as Paul has told us. Each of these festivals marks stages in the inbreaking of the “New Creation” that is so central a theme to the New Testament writers. What God has done in Jesus Christ is so utterly new, so absolute, that whatever came before is a mere foretelling or foreshadowing of what God has in store for those who love him. The Birth of John the Baptist then, is one of these events that mark the beginning of something utterly new in the whole of creation – it is the opening act in the great drama of salvation that changes humanity from being merely the highest order of creation, to being participants in the very life and being of the Creator. I tremble in wonder at the implications of this mystery.
The Vigil liturgy clues us to the importance of the feast and the fact that it offers a new beginning; the biblical word which is presented at the liturgy on the Solemnity itself opens us to understanding ever more clearly the role that John played in God’s plan. Note how God takes direct action in the conception, birth and mission of John. The Gospel account from Luke is a kind of parallel to the birth of Jesus – because John is the last (and Jesus says, the greatest) of the old creation. John stands at the pivotal moment of human history and directs men and women toward Jesus and his message. John is the essence of self-effacement as he labors not for Israel, but for the one who is to follow who will change all of human history and the reality of creation into something entirely new.
In the rational and scientific culture that we dwell in, it is sometimes hard to imagine that God does directly intervene in history when it is in the Divine interest to do so. John was planned by God for centuries, whole generations awaited his coming to announce the good news of the coming of the Messiah. One could assume that from the fall until his birth God knew who John would be and that he would serve willingly with his whole heart – even to giving his life.
John’s birth marks the beginning of the great events of salvation. The Church places his feast at the height of summer to indicate that the old order that John represented is passing away – is waning. There is a new and glorious creation coming to birth and John’s birth is its conception in a way.
We rejoice that God formed John in Elizabeth’s womb when she and Zacharias conceived him in their love. We rejoice that God called John to announce the saving deeds of Jesus. We rejoice that John responded to God’s call to bring to completion the promise of Israel to be the Light to the Nations. On June 23 let us wait in joyful hope for the completion of God’s work begun in the Birth of John that we celebrate on June 24. As we see the sunlight begin to wane in our Northern hemisphere we turn our thoughts toward God’s promise fulfilled in Christmas . . .
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