Celebrating St. John the Baptist

Daniel Witham

Celebrating St. John the Baptist

Each year on June 24th, the liturgical calendar brings before us the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. In this post we will explore the special importance of this feast celebrating the Precursor of Christ, and look at some interesting traditions we can take part in to honor him. 

The Story of St. John’s Birth 

Sacred Scripture relates the birth of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke. Zachariah (a priest) and Elizabeth (cousin of the Virgin Mary) were married but were not blessed with children. Considered barren in her old age, the Lord worked a miracle and Elizabeth conceived John. This was announced to Zachariah by the Archangel Gabriel in the temple, but Zachariah lost his speech because he doubted the angel’s message! It wasn’t until the birth of John that Zachariah had his speech returned to him, and he prophesied in the words now known as the Benedictus canticle: 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; 

he has come to his people and set them free. 

He has raised up for us a mighty savior, 

born of the house of his servant David. 

Through his holy prophets he promised of old 

that he would save us from our enemies, 

from the hands of all who hate us. 

He promised to show mercy to our fathers 

and to remember his holy covenant. 

This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 

to set us free from the hands of our enemies, 

free to worship him without fear, 

holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life. 

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; 

for you will go 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 

the dawn from on high shall break 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. 

We also recall that at the time of Mary’s own Annunciation, the angel announced to her that Elizabeth was already six months pregnant with St. John. Mary therefore went to visit and assist her cousin, and was present for John’s birth. 

This beautiful scene is the object of our reflections today. St. John the Baptist would grow up and become a great prophet, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for sin, and preparing the way for the Lord Jesus Christ. He even had the privilege of pointing out Jesus as the Lamb of God, and baptizing him. 

Why Keep a Feast Today? 

When we pause and look at the liturgical calendar’s celebration of the saints, we notice that in almost every case, we celebrate a saint’s death-day, not his or her birthday. This makes good sense: men and women are born into original sin, they are only sanctified later through baptism. It is therefore their day of death which is most important and holy since this is the day a saint enters his or her reward in heaven. Why, then, do we keep a feast of St. John’s nativity? 

In fact, we also keep a feast in memory of St. John the Baptist’s beheading and death on August 29. St. John therefore has the privilege of having two feasts in his honor. Additionally, he is one of only three persons whose nativity is celebrated. The others are Christ himself (December 25, Christmas) and the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8). The logic, as we said before, is that other men and women are born in sin; their birth is not a holy day. But St. John the Baptist was actually sanctified in his mother’s womb before his birth. St. Luke’s gospel says, 

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy (Luke 1:39-44). 

Therefore the Church rightly celebrates the holy day of the birth of St. John, who had already been sanctified by Christ’s presence and Mary’s greeting. 

Another interesting fact to consider is the timing of this feast, on June 24th. This puts the feast six months before Christmas. The timing here is intentional in order to match up with the biblical account of Mary’s Annunciation, then St. John’s birth three months later, followed by Jesus’ birth six months later. 

It also produces a rather nice symbolic interpretation of the solar cycle in the northern hemisphere. St. John the Baptist in his humility said of Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). St. John’s Day comes just as the summer solstice occurs. From now, on the daylight will literally decrease, until the darkest time of the year at the winter solstice. Then we will be celebrating Christ’s own birth of light into the darkness, and the daylight will increase through the rest of winter and spring! 

St. John’s Fires 

There are many traditions regarding the celebration of St. John the Baptist. By far the most popular is that of St. John’s Fires, large bonfires held on the eve of his nativity. The origin of these fires is less than certain, but they were extremely popular in Europe through many ages. On June 23rd, a large bonfire was prepared so that people could spend the night outdoors in celebration and dancing for the arriving feast day. These were symbolic too in that St. John was not the promised Light of the World, but he announced the arrival of that light. 

Actually, there is a tradition of building these large fires out of old wooden rubbish, broken furniture, and similar things. To this would be added some old animal bones after eating. It is said that this symbolized the end of old things and the beginning of the new, since it is with the appearance of John the Baptist that the old law begins to come to a close and the Messiah is seen approaching in the distance. It is likely that this “bone fire” gives us our current word bonfire itself. 

If we are able, this feast would be a beautiful occasion to celebrate a nice summer evening by a bonfire with family and friends. Furthermore, a bonfire can be a great way to respectfully dispose of old sacramentals and holy cards if we have some that are damaged. These holy items cannot be thrown in the garbage, but are supposed to be respectfully burned or buried. 

Baptismal Memories 

In other parts of the world, a tradition exists of playing in water, swimming, or playfully splashing one another with water on St. John’s Nativity. The faithful have associated this day with baptism because St. John baptized Christ. The feast also lands during summer each year, making this a good opportunity to playfully remember our baptism. We might go for a swim at a pool, beach, or lake if we are able, in a nod to St. John. If we have children, a water balloon fight or something similar can be a fun way to get them involved in celebrating St. John, while also cooling down on a summer day.

On a more serious note, we can thank God today for the gift of our own baptism. When St. John baptized Christ, it is said that Christ sanctified all water and gave it the power to regenerate us in the sacrament of baptism. Today would therefore be a fitting day to renew our baptismal vows, or to obtain a fresh supply of holy water for our home if we need. 

Food for St. John 

One final way to celebrate this day is by enjoying some foods in honor of St. John the Baptist. The Baptist wasn’t too keen on rich foods, instead living on just locusts and honey! But on his feast day, that doesn’t mean we should avoid a little bit of feasting. Honey and honeycombs are an obvious choice, whether we enjoy them on a piece of toast, a biscuit, in a marinade for meats, or as part of dessert. A glass of mead, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey, is another fun choice for adults. I personally prefer to skip the locusts, but that is up to you!