The Birth of St John the Baptist
The Nativity of St. John, the Baptist
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
In the holy Gospel, the nativity of St. John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, is described by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not only for our instruction, but also that we may rejoice in the Lord our God. In the mountains of Judaea, at Hebron, eight miles from Jerusalem, lived Zachary and Elizabeth. They were just people, and lived in accordance with the commandments of God, but had no children, although they had prayed for them many years. The great age which they had attained, naturally gave them no longer any hope of issue. But still they continued their prayer. One day, when Zachary, who was a priest, offered incense in the Temple at Jerusalem, he saw at the right side of the altar, an angel, whose appearance filled the pious old man with fear and trembling. The angel, however, said to him: ” Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard. Elizabeth, thy wife, shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. He shall bring thee joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. He shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. He shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God: and he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.”
Zachary listened with great astonishment: the angel’s promise seemed to him to be out of the course of nature. Hence, he said: “Whereby shall I know this? For, I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel answered: “I am Gabriel, who stand before God, and I am sent to speak to thee and bring thee these good tidings. And behold, thou shalt be dumb and not able to speak until the day wherein these things shall come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time.” After this the angel disappeared, and Zachary, mute from that hour, returned home after he had discharged his priestly functions.
The words of the Archangel Gabriel came to pass. Elizabeth conceived and gave praise and thanks to God that He had removed from her the disgrace of being barren. Six months later, the Most High sent the angel Gabriel to the blessed Virgin, at Nazareth, to announce to her that she should become the mother of the long expected Messiah. He at the same time informed her that her cousin Elizabeth, although she was old and barren, had conceived a son, as to God nothing was impossible. After Mary had resigned herself with deep humility to the will of the Almighty, and become the mother of the Son of God, she went into the mountains of Judaea, to the house of Elizabeth and Zachary. She did not go to see if the angel’s words in regard to Elizabeth were true, but to congratulate her happy cousin, and render her such services as she would need. The Gospel assures us that when the Virgin Mother entered the dwelling of Zachary and greeted Elizabeth, John, the yet unborn child, leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, as soon as Mary’s words of salutation reached Elizabeth’s ear, and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Ghost. This leaping of the unborn Saint, was, according to the holy fathers, a sign that John, by special favor of the Almighty, knew the Saviour, yet concealed from the eyes of the world, and rejoicing in His presence, adored Him. Hence they teach that John was at that moment cleansed from original sin and filled with the Holy Ghost, and thus fulfilled the words of the angel and was sanctified in the womb of his mother.
At length came the time when he was to see the light of day, and Elizabeth gave birth to him whom the angel had promised and prophesied. When the neighbors and relatives heard how gracious God had been to Elizabeth, they all went to see her and congratulate her. On the eighth day the child was circumcised according to the law. As children, on this occasion, received a name, the relatives wished to give him that of his father, but Elizabeth opposed it, saying: ” John is his name!” “But there is none among thy kindred that is called by this name,” said her friends. Elizabeth, however, remained inflexible. Turning to the still mute Zachary, they desired to know how he would have him called. Zachary asked for a writing-table and wrote; “John is his name.” And at the same time his speech returned, and filled with the Holy Ghost, he gave thanks to God in the beautiful hymn which is one of the daily prayers of the Church, and begins: ” Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people.” All those present marvelled at these events, praised God, and spread among the people all that they had heard and seen, and concluded from it that the new-born child was destined to be great among them. Hence they said to each other: “What do you think shall this child be? for the hand of the Lord is with him.”
Thus writes St. Luke, in his gospel, of the nativity of St. John, and then adds that, “he grew and was strengthened in spirit;” and was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel, by his preaching and baptizing.
Several holy fathers write that Elizabeth fled with her child into the desert, to conceal herself from the cruelties of king Herod; and that John was nourished and kept either by an angel or in some other manner by divine Providence. Others write that, in his third or at most in his fifth year, he had voluntarily gone into the desert, eager to serve God more perfectly and to prepare himself for his mission. No one ought to think this incredible; since, even before he was born, he was gifted with the use of his reason, and comprehended the great mission to which he was called by the Almighty. So much is certain that he was from his most tender years in the wilderness. The holy Evangelists and the holy fathers tell us what manner of life he led there. He subsisted on wild honey and locusts, which are used as food in the East; but he ate so little, that our Lord said of him, that he had neither taken food nor drink. His drink was water; his garments, a coat of camels’-hair, which was fastened round his loins by a leathern belt. The ground was his bed, and he employed day and night in prayer and meditation. By fasting and other austere penances, he prepared himself for his mission. St. Augustine remarks that the severe life of penance of John was the model after which the hermits regulated their lives; hence they acknowledge him as their founder.
When in his thirtieth year, St. John was admonished by God to leave the wilderness and commence his mission. Going to the river Jordan, he preached penance and baptized the penitents. This baptism was not that which Christ instituted in the course of time: neither had it the power which the baptism of Christ has; but was only a sign of penance. In the Gospel it is related how great a multitude of people came to St. John; what he preached; how he exhorted them to do penance: how he had the honor to baptize Christ Himself, and what occurred during this event. The splendid testimony is spoken of, which he gave at different times, to the effect that Christ was the true Messiah. It is also recorded what he answered to those who were sent to him to ask whether he was the promised Messiah; for, his life was so holy and wonderful, that many believed him to be the long promised Redeemer. The events of the latter part of the life of this Saint will be related in the chapter for the day on which the church commemorates his decapitation.
Among the writings of the holy Fathers we find many sermons which contain magnificent praises of the virtues of St. John, the Baptist. They call him an angel in the flesh; an apostle in his sermons; a miracle of penance; the first hermit who induced so many thousands to imitate him; the first preacher of repentance, and proclaimer of the heavenly kingdom. They praise his fearlessness in reproving vice, both in high and in low; his deep humility, by which he deemed himself not worthy to baptize Christ, or even to unloose the latchet of His shoes; his angelic purity; his continual penance and his unwearied zeal for the honor of God and the welfare of men. But what should inspire every one with the greatest reverence towards this Saint is the fact, that Christ our Lord Himself praised the greatness and holiness of St. John so frequently, and said that among men there had been none greater than John the Baptist. What more can be said in his praise?
At the time when the Divine Mother visited her holy cousin Elizabeth, the yet unborn John was cleansed from original sin and sanctified by the grace of the Almighty. What an inexpressibly great grace! You partook of the same after your birth, when you received holy baptism. You were at that time cleansed from the stain of original sin, and from a child of wrath became a child of God, a temple and a dwelling of the Holy Ghost, and obtained the right to eternal happiness. ” Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called and should be the sons of God;” writes the holy Apostle John (John iii.) Consider this unspeakably great favor which God in His mercy has shown to you, in preference to so many thousands. But have you ever made manifest to God your gratitude for this great mercy? Commence this day to offer your thanks to Him, and repeat them yearly on the day of your birth or of your baptism. Take heed that you turn not again to a child of wrath from a child of God, and that from “a dwelling of the Holy Ghost you become not a habitation for the devil; and thus, by sin, forfeit the claim you had on heaven. “By baptism, you have become a temple and a dwelling of the Holy Ghost,” says St. Leo; “do not drive away so noble an inhabitant and become again a slave of the devil.”
St. John kept the grace and innocence which he received in the womb of his mother unimpaired, and yet led a most austere life from his tenderest years until his end. How does it happen that you have such an aversion to all penances, as you certainly must know that you have long since lost the grace and innocence received in holy baptism? Why will you not mortifiy your body either by fasts or other acts of self-denial? Why do you persist in allowing yourself all that your body desires; and why do you avoid every thing that is in the least burdensome or hard for you? “John punished and mortified his innocent body so severely;” says St. Bernard, “and you desire to adorn your sinful body with silk and velvet, and nourish it with delicate food.” How is this? How do you suppose you will be able to render an account of your doings to God? Truly, if we could save our souls as easily without all self-denial, by enjoying the pleasures of the world, and living in comfort and luxury, we might say that John did not act wisely in leading so severe a life. But who dares even think this of one who before he was born was already filled with the Holy Ghost? We act very unwisely if we flatter ourselves that, living so different a life, shall obtain a place in heaven near him. “Hence,” says the above-cited holy teacher, “let us encourage ourselves to do penance,” in consideration of the austere penances, of St. John. “Let us stimulate ourselves to mortify our bodies, that we may escape the awful judgment of the living God.”
Homily of St. Ambrose
Elizabeth brought forth a son, and her neighbors rejoiced with her. The birth of Saints brings joy to very many, since it is a benefit to all; for justice is a virtue for all. And so, in the birth of a just man, a token of his future life is foreshown, and the grace of the virtue to come is expressed by the prophetic joy of the neighbors. It is fitting that there should be mention of the time when the Prophet was in the womb, lest the presence of Mary should not be remembered; but nothing is told of the time of his childhood, for he did not know the disabilities of childhood. And so we read nothing of him in the Gospel, except his birth, and his announcement, the leaping in the womb, the voice in the wilderness.
For he did not experience the helplessness of childhood, he who supernaturally, outstripping his age, began from the measure of the age of the fulness of Christ, when still tying in his mother’s womb. It is strange how the holy Evangelist thought it necessary to tell us that many considered that the child should be called by his father’s name of Zachary; in order that you might notice that the mother would not have the name of any relative, but only that given by the Holy Ghost, which the Angel had previously announced to Zachary. And indeed, the latter, still dumb, could not tell his wife the name of their son; but Elizabeth learned by prophecy what she had not learned from her husband.
John, he says, is his name; that is, it is not for us to give a name to the one who has already received a name from God. He has his name, which we know, but we did not choose it. To receive a name from God is one of the rewards of the Saints. So Jacob was called Israel, because he saw God. So our Lord Jesus was named before he was born; not an Angel, however, but his Father gave him his name. You see that Angels announce what they have heard, not what they take upon themselves. Do not wonder, that the woman pronounced a name she had not heard; when the Holy Ghost, who had commanded the Angel, revealed it to her.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Christ hear us.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God the Father of heaven,
Have mercy on us.*
God the Son, Redeemer of the world,*
God the Holy Ghost,*
Holy Trinity, one God,*
Pray for us.**
Queen of Prophets,**
Queen of Martyrs,**
St. John the Baptist,**
St. John the Baptist, glorious forerunner of the Son of justice,**
St. John the Baptist, minister of baptism to Jesus,**
St. John the Baptist, burning and shining lamp of the world,**
St. John the Baptist, angel of purity, before thy birth,**
St. John the Baptist, special friend and favorite of Christ,**
St. John the Baptist, heavenly contemplative, whose element was prayer,**
St. John the Baptist, intrepid preacher of truth,**
St. John the Baptist, miracle of mortification and penance,**
St. John the Baptist, example of profound humility,**
St. John the Baptist, glorious martyr of zeal for God’s holy law,**
St. John the Baptist, glorious patron of this State,**
Lamb of God, Who Takest away the sins of the world,
Spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God! Who takest away the sins of the world,
Hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God! Who takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.
Christ, hear us;
Christ, graciously hear us.
V. Pray for us, O glorious St. John the Baptist,
R. That we may be made worth of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray.
O God, Who hast honored this world by the birth of St. John the Baptist, grant that Thy faithful people may rejoice in the way of eternal salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
A Novena to St. John the Baptist
O Glorious precursor of Jesus Christ! great prophet of the Most High! angel of the Lord! who wert created to go before his face, and to prepare his ways, how high must thy throne be in heaven, since even on earth thou wert so exalted! Thou art truly the first and greatest amongst those born of woman, since the Searcher of hearts pronounced thee such. Thou wert great in thy miraculous birth and wonderful life–great in thy penance and in thy zeal; but thou wert much greater in thy purity of heart, and in the depth of thy humility. Thou didst enter this world of sin in the friendship of thy Creator, and never had the misfortune to offend him–thou wert the minister of baptism to Jesus Christ, yet thou didst humbly acknowledge thyself unworthy to loose the latchet of his shoe. O great saint! that glory which always follows the humble, has been abundantly granted to thee. Jesus Christ Himself proclaimed thy praises, and the whole world, to the end of time, will rejoice in thy sacred birth. O miracle of God’s power and grace! I conjure thee to raise for us and for all the people of this state, of which thou art the special patron, that powerful voice, which once crying in the wilderness, penetrated the heavens in favor of sinners; and to implore for us the intentions of this Novena, N.N.
O blessed contemplative, whose sweet communications with God were earlier than thy birth; thy food and thy life were the heavenly exercise of prayer; thou wert by excellence the friend of the bridegroom, and canst therefore obtain all things of Him, Who so ardently loved thee. Deign then to take all my spiritual necessities under thy protection, and to obtain for us all the graces we stand in need of, particularly perfect docility to the voice of those who preach to us, as thou didst to the Jews, the baptism of penance for the remission of our sins.
O burning lamp! may our hearts be at length inflamed with the fire of love which consumed thee, and which is cast also amongst us by the zealous preaching of those whom the Lord has sent amongst us, to show us the way to Him. O shining lamp! enlighten us by thy prayers, that w may know ourselves but infinitely more, that we may know our God and His only Son Jesus Christ our Lord whom He hath sent, obtain for us to participate frequently and worthily in the holy communion, and with the purity of heart, which enables thee to discover the Lamb of God, though he was then hidden from all others. O blessed martyr of Jesus Christ, though I am most unworthy to lay down my life for his love as thou didst, yet I entreat of thee to intercede for me that I may live and die in the happy martyrdom of Christian mortification, and the faithful discharge of every duty required by the divine law. Amen
Prayer to St. John the Baptist
O glorious Saint John the Baptist, greatest prophet among those born of woman, although thou wast sanctified in thy mother’s womb and didst lead a most innocent life, nevertheless it was thy will to retire into the wilderness, there to devote thyself to the practice of austerity and penance; obtain for us of thy Lord the grace to be wholly detached, at least in our hearts, from earthly goods, and to practice Christian mortification with interior recollection and with the spirit of holy prayer.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.
O most zealous Apostle, who, without working any miracle on others, but solely by the example of thy life of penance and the power of thy word, didst draw after thee the multitudes, in order to dispose them to receive the Messias worthily and to listen to His heavenly doctrine; grant that it may be given unto us, by means of the example of a holy life and the exercise of every good work, to bring many souls to God, but above all those souls that are enveloped in the darkness of error and ignorance and are led astray by vice.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be.
O Martyr invincible, who, for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, didst with firmness and constancy withstand the impiety of Herod even at the cost of thine own life, and didst rebuke him openly for his wicked and dissolute life; by thy prayers obtain for us a heart, brave and generous, in order that we may overcome all human respect and openly profess our faith in loyal obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ, our divine Master.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be.
V. Pray for us. Saint John the Baptist,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray.
O God, who hast made this day to be honorable in our eyes by the Nativity (or commemoration) of blessed John, grant unto Thy people the grace of spiritual joy, and direct the minds of all Thy faithful into the way of everlasting salvation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen
Indulgence of 3 years; indulgence of 5 years once a day, if the prayers are said with the intention of completing a triduum; plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, at the close of the triduum.
Hymn: Antra deserti
Thou, in thy childhood, to the desert caverns
Fleddest for refuge from the cities’ turmoil,
Where the world’s slander might not dim thy luster,
Camel’s hair raiment clothed thy saintly members;
Leathern the girdle which thy loins encircled;
Locusts and honey, with the fountain-water,
Daily sustained thee.
Oft in past ages, seers with hearts expectant
Sang the far-distant advent of the Daystar;
Thine was the glory, as the world’s Redeemer
First to proclaim him.
Far as the wide world reacheth, born of woman,
Holier was there none than John the Baptist;
Meetly in water laving him who cleanseth
Man from pollution.
Praise to the Father, to the Sole-begotten,
And to the Spirit, equal power possessing,
One God whose glory, through the lapse of ages,
Ever resoundeth. Amen.
A Mother’s Prayer to St. John the Baptist
St. John, child of saintly parents, child of prayer and grace, gift of heaven, forerunner of Jesus Christ, preacher of penance, preparer of the way of the Lord! You are the model of all those that, with an upright heart, seek Jesus and desire to belong to Him. Although innocent and pure as an angel, you performed during your whole life the strictest penance. Scanty and poor was your nourishment. You abstained entirely from intoxicating beverages. You perseveringly shunned all occasions and dangers of falling into sin, and spent your time in converse with God, in meditation and prayer. You daily increased in wisdom, courage, and strength of soul, and daily exercised yourself in the practice of those high virtues demanded of you by your vocation. You, by the holiest actions, proved the truth of your enlightened teaching, your glowing admonitions, and your menacing warnings. You aroused hearts to faith in Jesus Christ, inflamed them with His love, and incited them to His imitation.
O holy St. John, take my children, take me, and all my dear ones under your protection and guidance! Show Jesus to our hearts. Teach us to believe firmly in Him, to repose unshaken confidence in Him, and to love Him with our whole soul! Be, finally, our mediator with Jesus Christ. Oh, obtain for us the pardon of our sins, worthy fruits of penance, entire satisfaction for all the offenses committed against God, faithful imitation of your life, strict curbing of our evil fancies and perverse inclinations, an ardent desire for heavenly riches, perseverance in grace, fervent imitation of Jesus, the patient bearing of our cross, and in the hour of death your blessed company for all eternity. Obtain this for us, O well-beloved of our Divine Savior! Obtain it by your high rank in the Kingdom of God, by your superabundant merits, by the love you bear our souls, and by the ardent desire you have to see us all enclosed in the Heart of Jesus, there to be preserved, guarded, and saved forever! Amen.
Prayer to St. John the Baptist as your Patron Saint
Saint John the Baptist, whom I have chosen as my special patron, pray for me that I, too, may one day glorify the Blessed Trinity in heaven. Obtain for me your lively faith, that I may consider all persons, things, and events in the light of almighty God. Pray, that I may be generous in making sacrifices of temporal things to promote my eternal interests, as you so wisely did.
Set me on fire with a love for Jesus, that I may thirst for His sacraments and burn with zeal for the spread of His kingdom. By your powerful intercession, help me in the performance of my duties to God, myself and all the world.
Win for me the virtue of purity and a great confidence in the Blessed Virgin. Protect me this day, and every day of my life. Keep me from mortal sin. Obtain for me the grace of a happy death. Amen
For more on St John the Baptist please click HERE