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Saint Ignatius High School

Baptism by Desire

From a Theological perspective this Sunday’s feast is rather unique since there are only three birthdays celebrated by the Church in the liturgical calendar: December 25th (Jesus), September 8th (Mary) and this Sunday: John the Baptist.

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 139:1-3, 13-15
Second Reading: Acts of the Apostles 13:22-26

Gospel: According to St. Luke 1:57-66, 80

The Church, in devising the liturgical calendar, has a very specific way of proceeding when determining what to celebrate on any particular day.  Thus, this Sunday does not mark the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, but instead the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist.  In the liturgical pecking order a Solemnity always trumps a Sunday in Ordinary Time.

That having been said, from a Theological perspective this Sunday’s feast is rather unique since there are only three birthdays celebrated by the Church in the liturgical calendar: December 25th (Jesus), September 8th (Mary) and June 24th (John the Baptist).

The story of the Visitation, where John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when a pregnant Mary – and therefore Jesus – entered the room, has always been seen as John’s baptism.  This “baptism by desire” places John in the group with Jesus and Mary as the only people ever born without Original Sin.

Also influencing this celebration are the seasons of the year and the words of John the Baptist that Jesus “must increase; I must decrease.”  John’s point is that he is merely the forerunner to the Messiah, and thus he must fade into the background as Jesus comes to prominence.  The Church has taken these words and built them into the choice of date upon which to celebrate John’s birthday.  From this day, June 24th, until Christmas the length of daylight lessens each day, while from Christmas until the birthday of John the daylight increases.

Beyond seeing the wonderful internal logic of the liturgical calendar in action this day reminds each Christian of God’s love and concern for every person ever born, with John the Baptist on display as a specific example for each of us to emulate.

The reference in the reading from Isaiah – and at the vigil Mass in the reading from Jeremiah – to God’s relationship to the prophet even before birth is key not only to understanding the prophetic call, but also to the universal nature of the human vocation.  “From my mother’s womb He gave me my name” says Isaiah, and at the vigil Jeremiah recounts God’s words to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.”

Besides providing us with a Theological basis for the belief that those in the womb are in God’s care and that any action contrary to life is an action contrary to the will of God, these statements call our attention to the personal relationship that the Father has with each of us from the moment of conception.

The events surrounding the birth of John are certainly miraculous and filled with supernatural wonder: Elizabeth in her old age conceives, and Zechariah, who is made mute because of his disbelief, is given back his speech at John’s birth.  These events cause the townsfolk to wonder: “What, then, will this child be?”

But given the unique nature of each birth, the question “What will this child be?” should have universal relevance, and the coming into the world of John the Baptist should be seen as the template for every nativity.  Each family should, as the Church does with John the Baptist, celebrate the birth of a child as a solemnity – a feast day of the highest rank.  After all, God knew each of us by name from the beginning of time and has a plan for each of us that is no less special, no less holy, than the one that He had for Jeremiah, Isaiah and John the Baptist.