Nativity of St. John the Baptist: Christians observe feast for the Forerunner

“I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John… [Y]et the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
Jesus, in reference to John the Baptist, Luke 7:28

Painting of women and men gathered around young bab

An artist’s interpretation of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 24: A central New Testament figure is honored in both the Eastern and Western Christian churches today, as the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. From the earliest days of the Church, St. John was considered a special figure. After all, aside from Jesus and the Virgin Mary, only John is honored with a feast day for his nativity. Known also as the Nativity of the Forerunner, St. John the Baptist is widely regarded for having foretold the coming of the Messiah in Jesus. Years later, St. John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.

THE STORY OF ST. JOHN’S BIRTH

The biblical account of the birth of John the Baptist is contained in the Gospel of Luke. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, had no children and were beyond childbearing age when Zechariah was visited by the Archangel Gabriel. (Learn more from American Catholic and Catholic Culture.) While on rotation at the Temple in Jerusalem, Zechariah was told by Gabriel that he and his wife would conceive a child, who should be named John. Disbelieving at first, Zechariah was left speechless until his son’s birth. (Wikipedia has details.) When the baby was born and the question arose of what to name him, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John.” With that, Zechariah was once again able to speak, and he prophesied the future ministry of John. (An Orthodox perspective is at OCA.org.)

CELEBRATIONS AND A FEAST DAY

Fifteen churches were dedicated to St. John the Baptist in the ancient city of Constantinople, and from the earliest days, the Forerunner was honored as one of the greatest saints in Christianity. Ancient celebratory customs of this day began to resemble those of a pre-Christian summer festival in close proximity, and to this day, “St. John’s fires” are lit on hilltops across Europe while herbs are believed to hold greater strength than at other times of the year. In Germany, freshly-picked herbs are brought to church for a blessing. In many regions, meals are eaten outdoors with family and friends, and singing and dancing are popular activities. The faithful gather to pray for St. John’s intercession during the summer.

Note: A separate commemoration for the Beheading of John the Baptist occurs on August 29.