Q. This week we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24). Isn’t the memorial of saints usually on the anniversary of their death, rather than their birthday?
A. Yes, saints’ memorials (feast days) are usually celebrated on the anniversary of their death. In ancient times, that anniversary was often referred to as their dies natalis, or “birthday,” because on that day they were born into eternal life. In the grand scheme of things, their birth into eternity is much more worthy to be celebrated than their birth into time.
Even so, we commemorate both the birthdays and the end-of-earthly-life dates of two saints: the Blessed Virgin Mary (Nativity, September 8; Assumption, August 15) and St. John the Baptist (Nativity, June 24; Martyrdom, August 29). This extraordinary distinction reflects the extraordinary circumstances of the birth of both saints.
Other than her divine Son, Mary is the only human being to have been conceived and consequently born without original sin. So we commemorate not only her birth on September 8, but also her conception on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, nine months before her nativity. Both those events are imminently worthy of commemoration.
Then what about John? He was not conceived without original sin. But an ancient tradition holds that he was born without original sin.
This tradition is based on the account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, John’s mother, while John was still in her womb. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Mary, carrying Jesus in her womb, first greeted St. Elizabeth, John “leaped” in Elizabeth’s womb, and “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). This tradition holds that when the Spirit came upon Elizabeth, He came upon John within her as well, and cleansed him of original sin.
In essence, this infilling of the Holy Spirit served as John’s “baptism,” accomplishing the remission of his original sin. So even though he had not been conceived without original sin as Mary had been, still this cleansing in his mother’s womb allowed him to be born without original sin (though, unlike Mary, he eventually committed actual sin).
Given this ancient tradition, we can see why the Church would commemorate John’s extraordinary birth as well as his death.
A note about the timing of the liturgical feast: Luke tells us that the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary at Jesus’s conception that Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy with John (Luke 1:36). So John’s nativity (June 24) is commemorated six months before Our Lord’s nativity (December 25). Why is it on the 24th instead of the 25th of the month?
The answer to that question is not certain, but most likely it results from the ancient Roman way of counting days, which counted backward from the Kalends (first day) of the following month. Christmas was “the eighth day before the Kalends of January” (Octavo Kalendas Januarii). So John’s birthday was placed on the “eighth day before the Kalends of July.” Since June has only thirty days, according to our present way of counting, the solemnity falls on June 24.
Some Christians find significance in the fact that John’s birthday falls around the time of the summer solstice, when the hours of daily sunlight reach their annual peak and then begin once more to diminish. They recall John’s words with regard to Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).