Here we are in late June. We have crossed the approximate halfway mark between last Christmas and the coming Christmas. I love Advent and Christmas dearly, and as a Coloradoan, thoughts of Christmas are never far away, as snow is never far away from us. I’ve seen snowflakes fall in early June even outside of the mountains here during an exceptionally cold spell. As for the mountains themselves, June snow is not uncommon and the high peaks are still coated heavily this year. Yet there are other reasons of a liturgical sort for why June should remind me and you of Christmas.
The Summer Christmas, The Nativity of John the Baptist
This year was special in that two high holy days outside of the Easter Season, solemnities as we call them, occurred back to back. The Solemnity of The Sacred Heart of Jesus fell on June 23rd, and then June 24th was the Nativity of John the Baptist, also a Solemnity.
Take special note. In past centuries, the birth of this great saint of the Gospels and blood cousin of Jesus who prepared the way of the Lord, first as the babe that leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth at the very sound of Mary, Mother of God, was also seen as highly important and special and great cause for festivity. The word “nativity” in the Christian mind easily brings forth imagery of Christmas and the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And this high feast of the Church celebrating the birth of such a very special saint being set as it is six months exactly prior to Christmas Eve gave rise to the embrace of June the 24th, Midsummer’s Eve, as “The Summer Christmas” in Medieval Christendom.
As Christmas is celebrated on December 25th and as the biblical narrative shows us John the Baptist is approximately six months older than Jesus, it made sense to set the celebration of his birth, precisely 6 months prior. In the Ancient Church, it is significant to note only two birthdays were originally celebrated, Jesus’s and John the Baptist’s. The celebration of his birthday historically precedes the large and wonderful number of Marian Solemnities and Feasts which now fill the liturgical calendar. This should remind us he really is significant, a great saint.
The Liturgical Year Revolves Around Christmas
In our own day, among the beautiful rhythms of the liturgical seasons which help us to experience the life of Christ as each season comes and passes is what can be seen as a design of the liturgical calendar to rotate upon and around Christmas. Precisely three months after Christmas, on March 25th, the Church celebrates the Annunciation when Mary says yes to God’s request to become a man in her womb. Christ is conceived. 3 months later, one-quarter of the year later, John the Baptist is born. Approximately three months later, in late September, Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangels is celebrated, the angels so intimately connected with the Incarnation.
I often take Michaelmas as our first real autumnal indicator that indeed Christmas is coming only around the bend. In my Christmas-loving heart, I think to myself “The angels are back! Soon so will first frosts, snowflakes, and Advent Candles.” And then just about 3 months later comes once again Christmas. It is as if the joy of Christmas no sooner “leaves us” than anticipation of our annual reliving of the Christmas Mystery begins to build again, anticipated especially at these quarters of the year which also happen to occur close to season transitions into Spring, Summer, and Autumn before the great celebration of Christ’s birth as winter commences.
The Church has long speculated, in the holiest of ways, though not doctrine, that John the Baptist was not only blood kin to Jesus and Mary but he was spiritually akin to them in an exceptional way being very conceivably (no pun intended) born without Original Sin as were they. Whereas Jesus, the Word Made Flesh is, in fact, holy, sinless and blameless, God had protected Mary from all stain of original sin from the very first moment of her conception. An entirely unique and unmerited gift was this, given her in view of a special grace of the Redemption of the Cross given her in advance, making her the new ark of the covenant, living, breathing with a perfectly pure womb that itself would “prepare the way of the Lord.” For John the Baptist, the Church holds firmly that he was conceived with Original Sin. It is the event of the Visitation of Mary To Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel that explains how John the Baptist could be born free of the stain of Original Sin: In the encounter with the unborn Jesus, again, from the first moment of his leap of joy even as a babe in Elizabeth’s womb, it is widely recognized that in those precious moments, his sanctification in the womb occurred.
John the Baptist
Though we are all familiar with John the Baptist, it seems contemporary Catholics at times gloss over his importance and the fact he is indeed one of very greatest of the saints of the Church a fact demonstrated by his birth being a Solemnity.
In earlier centuries, and among those reviving joyful celebration of this Solemnity, it really is a time of merry-making in a manner not dissimilar to Christmas. Like at Christmas time, traditionally, homes have been decked in greenery to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. As the birth of Jesus can be seen as sanctifying the Winter Solstice which has just passed in December when Christmas arrives, so the birth of John the Baptist can be seen sanctifying the Summer Solstice mere days after it officially arrives. Themes of light and darkness pervade both Christmas and Mid-Summer’s Eve. Mid-Summer’s Eve and the Summer Solstice had long been celebrated in Pagan times as had been the Winter Solstice. And Christianity has been no stranger to baptizing the true, good, beautiful elements in celebration of the seasons. This is nowhere truer than the birth of these cousins, one, the great forerunner to the Savior, and the other, the Savior himself.
And indeed, the imagery of John the Baptist has often fittingly included both fire and water, the symbolism of water reminding us of his role baptizing in the Jordan River, culminating in his baptism of Jesus. And the symbolism of fire, the Fire of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus, the Fire of the Light of Christ that he was preparing Israel for. Water has even been a major part of celebrating John the Baptist, in Mexico for instance. Prior to the Reformation, widespread across Europe were bonfires, and firelight processions that illuminated the Summer Night skies across villages, towns, and cities innumerable. Such would have been a sight to behold, bonfires brightening the few short hours of darkness during the longest days of the year when the night was already short, Christian Europe becoming on June 24th, bathed in the light of the sun by day and bonfires by night, a foretaste of the eternal day of Heaven.
The Angel Gabriel addressed Zechariah, speaking of his yet to be born coming infant son John the Baptist, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth…” (Luke 1:14). The joy, the gladness and the rejoicing at his birth continue down the centuries to our own day with the rediscovery and re-embrace of this great saint.
Saint John the Baptist, Pray For Us That We May Be Made Worthy Of The Promises Of Christ!