The Feast and Fast in Honor of St. John the Baptist, the Greatest of the Prophets
“Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
As June 24th approaches, the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, similarly advances. Along with the sinless Blessed Virgin Mary and Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church remembers the birth of St. John the Baptist. Together, the Church only liturgically celebrates these three holy births.
John the Baptist Was Born, But Not Conceived, Without Original Sin
Did you know that St. John the Baptist, the Precursor of Christ, was cleansed from original sin in his mother’s womb?
It is not a dogma, but firmly established in pious tradition and supported by theologians. And it makes sense. To be a forerunner of Christ, St. John the Baptist should have been freed of original sin. So while not an Immaculate Conception, like the Blessed Mother, St. John the Baptist was purified in the womb and born without original sin.
Though he was still conceived with original sin, as the Catholic Encyclopedia further states:
“Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should ‘be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb’. Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin.”
In meditating upon the Second Joyful Mystery, we consider the following passage:
“And Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda. And she entered into the house of Zachary, and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Lk 1:39-41).
It is at this grace-filled moment, when Our Lady brings in utero Her Divine Son, the Incarnate Word, into proximity with St. John, also in his mother’s womb, that St. John was sanctified and cleansed of original sin. He “leaped” for joy at being visited by His God and the Mother of God and at being liberated from the dominion of sin.
When a person is brought to the baptismal font we see a parallel to this wondrous event. The soul is filled with sanctifying grace, original sin is wiped away, and the person is born in Christ. Our Lord also grants him, in addition to his natural mother, two supernatural mothers in the order of grace: His own Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Holy Mother Church.
Our Lady always draws us to Christ and brings Christ to us. We see this clearly at our Baptism and in the Mystery of the Visitation.
Thus, it is fitting that such a great prophet’s feast day should be preceded by a vigil and celebrated with great solemnity.
The Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 23rd is the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This used to be a day of fasting and abstinence, and we may certainly keep it as such to prepare. Dom Gueranger, writing in the mid-1800s on the great Feast of the Nativity of the Lord’s forerunner, relates the following:
“On the Lateran Piazza (or Square) the faithful Roman people will keep vigil to-night, awaiting the hour which will allow the eve’s strict fast and abstinence to be broken, when they may give themselves up to innocent enjoyment, the prelude of those rejoicings wherewith, six months hence, they will be greeting the Emmanuel. St John’s vigil is no longer of precept. Formerly, however, not one day’s fasting only, but an entire Lent was observed at the approach of the Nativity of the Precursor, resembling in its length and severity that of the Advent of our Lord.
“The more severe had been the holy exactions of the preparation, the more prized and the better appreciated would be the festival. After seeing the penance of St John’s fast equaled to the austerity of that preceding Christmas, is it not surprising to behold the Church in her liturgy making the two Nativities closely resemble one another, to a degree that would be apt to stagger the limping faith of many nowadays?”
By 1893, the only fasting days kept in Rome were the forty days of Lent, the Ember Days, and the Vigils of the Purification, of Pentecost, of St. John the Baptist, of Ss. Peter and Paul, of the Assumption, of All Saints, and of Christmas. This is summarized from the Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome. In just a few years after this, Rome would abrogate the fast on the Vigil of the Purification and on the Vigil of St. John the Baptist.
But we can keep this long-established penance. In addition to fasting and abstaining from meat, we can also keep the venerable practice of having St. John Eve bonfires on the night of June 23rd. Even today, the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is celebrated with bonfires in many Catholic nations.
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist as a Holy Day of Obligation
Among the casualties of liturgical change and relaxation in discipline in the past few centuries has been the loss of importance for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24th. In Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, Father Weiser writes of the importance of the Feast of St. John’s Nativity:
“The Council of Agde, in 506, listed the Nativity of Saint John among the highest feasts of the year, a day on which all faithful had to attend Mass and abstain from servile work. Indeed, so great was the rank of this festival that, just as on Christmas, three Masses were celebrated, one during the vigil service, the second at dawn, the third in the morning. In 1022, a synod at Seligenstadt, Germany, prescribed a fourteen-day fast and abstinence in preparation for the Feast of the Baptist. This, however, was never accepted into universal practice by the Roman authorities.”
By the time of the changes to the Holy Days of Obligation in 1642, Pope Urban VIII kept the Nativity of St. John the Baptist as a day of precept. Why the importance? Father Weiser explains:
“The days of all the Apostles were raised to the rank of public holy days in 932. The feasts of Saint Michael, Saint Stephen, Saint John the Baptist, and other saints of the early centuries were celebrated in the past as holy days among all Christian nations.”
By the time of Father Weiser’s writing in the 1950s, in regard to the feasts of saints (i.e., not Feasts of Our Lord), only St. Joseph, Ss. Peter and Paul, All Saints, and the Marian feasts of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception remained as days of precept. And of these, Saint Joseph and Ss. Peter and Paul were exempt from obligation in the United States as they had been previously abrogated in the 1800s.
In Ireland, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist remained as a day of full precept longer than many other holy days. When changes were made to the Irish holy days in 1755 under Pope Benedict XIV and in 1778 under Pope Pius VI, the Nativity of St. John remained as a day of double precept, even when the feasts of the apostles were reduced to single precept. It was not abolished as a day of precept until 1831 in Ireland.
Dom Gueranger writes of how special this day used to be for our forefathers in the Faith:
“The Nativity of St John, like that of our Lord, was celebrated by three Masses: the first, in the dead of night, commemorated his title of Precursor; the second, at daybreak, honoured the baptism he conferred; the third, at the hour of Terce, hailed his sanctity. The preparation of the bride, the consecration of the Bridegroom, his own peerless holiness: a threefold triumph, which at once linked the servant to the Master, and deserved the homage of a triple sacrifice to God the Thrice-Holy, manifested to John in the plurality of his Persons, and revealed by him to the Church.
“In like manner, as there were formerly two Matins on Christmas night, so, in many places, a double Office was celebrated on the feast of St John, as Durandus of Mende, following Honorius of Autun, informs us. The first Office began at the decline of day; it was without Alleluia, in order to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets which lasted up to St. John. The second Office, begun in the middle of the night, terminated at dawn; this was sung with Alleluia, to denote the opening of the time of grace and of the kingdom of God.”
St. John the Baptist’s Nativity is a public holiday in Quebec and Puerto Rico as well as in Catalonia (where Barcelona is). Yet, how many of us honor this day in a special way?
Further illustrating the great importance of his Nativity, the Church kept it as an Octave up until the changes to Octaves by Pope Pius XII in 1955. For more on the Octave of St. John the Baptist, along with some basic principles of how Octaves worked in the first half of the twentieth century, click here.
The lasting importance of St. John the Baptist is unparalleled. The name “John” (or “Juan,” in Spanish) is one of the most common of all Catholic names. Numerous towns and dioceses are named after St. John the Baptist. He is invoked often for his intercession; and the lessons he taught regarding prayer, penance, and forsaking sin at all costs will never wane.
May the greatest of the prophets pray for us!