Today we celebrate the Birth of John the Baptist; it is a midsummer feast just as the Birth of Christ is a midwinter feast, John being born six months before Jesus
There is a sort of theological logic in this, although some might call it romantic logic, in that one of John’s most famous prophesies is that ‘I must decrease and he must increase.’ And it reflects the fact that from midsummer on the days do decrease until the arrival of Christ at Christmas when they increase again.
Besides the fact that this completely ignores the Southern Hemisphere, you might wonder why the feast falls on the 24th rather than 25th June if it is supposed to be exactly six months from the date of Christmas?
The reason lies in the Roman way of counting, which proceeded backward from the first day or Kalends of the following month. Christmas was “the eighth day before the Kalends of January.”
Consequently, the Birth of St John the Baptist was put on the “eighth day before the Kalends of July.” However, since today we use the Germanic way of counting in which June has only thirty days the feast now falls on 24th June.
Looking more closely at the text you might wonder about all the trouble in it over the choice of a name; but, of course, names are very important and they were especially significant to the Jewish people. And, as we see in the text, everyone in the family felt they had a right to be consulted.
It has been a great joy to us that we have had rather a lot of new babies born in the parish this year. I am sure that the parents have thought very hard about choosing a name for their new child. They want a name that sounds good, a name that means something.
The name John, that Zechariah chose, means ‘God will show him favour’ which is certainly auspicious.
This is an echo of the Angel’s greeting to Mary when he used the words: ‘you who enjoy God’s favour’. And although John the Baptist lived an extraordinarily ascetical life in the desert and preached an uncompromising message and ended his life in a gory death at the whim of a dancing girl, he certainly did enjoy God’s favour.
He enjoyed God’s favour because he was chosen to play a crucial role in the salvation of the world. He is the bridge between the Old and New Testaments and is regarded as one of the highest of all the saints.
Of course, everyone in the village assumed that John would be called Zechariah after his father and they also believed that he would most likely follow him as a priest in the Temple, but God had other ideas.
There is a good lesson for us here. We often think we know how someone will turn out in life, we often have very firm ideas about what we ourselves will do in our own lives and careers, but we soon learn that quite often God has other ideas.
John was marked out from his very birth to be the herald of Christ. In a similar was God has marked each one of us out for a particular work in the world. Maybe we already know where God wants us to go and what he wants us to do, or maybe not.
John is the one who brought Baptism into being for the Church and maybe this could give us a clue. Each one of us was Baptised, each one of us has made those Baptismal promises to reject Satan and to embrace belief in Christ. This is more than a clue to what God wants for us. He has chosen us to be his witnesses in the world.
We can with confidence say that John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament Prophets. In his manner and speech he clearly has something of Jeremiah or Elijah about him.
But you could certainly also say that John the Baptist was the first of the New Testament Prophets, the very first of the witnesses to Christ. There is always a need for prophets in the Church and God has not been neglectful in providing them.
There are people in our own day who speak up for Christ. In recent times we can think of Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul, Oscar Romero, Josephine Bakhita and so on. We may not consider ourselves saints but each of us can make a spiritual impression on the world in our own way. Each of us is capable of being a Prophet of the New Testament. Each of us can make an impact for Christ on our neighbours.
As we have seen the name John means God will show him favour. But as we recognise this favour is shown not only to John, it is shown to all of us.
Paul was invited to say a few words in the synagogue of Antioch he stood up and gave the beautiful account of the history of salvation that we heard in the second reading today.
And he concluded it by saying to his Jewish brothers: this message of salvation is meant for you. He speaks to the Jews of Antioch but he also speaks to us. This message of salvation is meant for us too.
We receive the salvation Christ won for us but we are also, like John, its heralds. We too proclaim a Baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. We too reject sin and proclaim our belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.