The feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist takes precedence in the Mass over the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.
Ordinarily the Church observes the day of a saint’s death as his feast, calling it his dies natalis, or the day of his birth into heaven. To this rule there are two notable exceptions, the birthdays of Blessed Mary and of St. John the Baptist. All other persons were stained with original sin at birth, hence, were displeasing to God. But Mary, already in the first moment of her existence, was free from original sin, and John was cleansed of original sin in the womb of his mother. This is the dogmatic justification for today’s feast.
In the breviary St. Augustine explains that the reason the day of St. John’s birth is sacred, whereas in the case of other saints, only the final day of their lives is honored, is that the Lord willed to announce to men His own coming through the Baptist, lest if He appeared suddenly, they would fail to recognize Him. John represented the Old Covenant and the Law. Therefore he preceded the Redeemer, even as the Law preceded and heralded the new dispensation of grace.
The birth of Jesus is observed on December 25 at the time of the winter solstice, while the birth of His forerunner is observed six months earlier at the time of the summer solstice. Christmas is a “light” feast; the same is true today. The popular custom centering about “St. John’s Fire” [bonfires made on the vigil of the feast] stems from soundest Christian dogma and could well be given renewed attention. St. John’s Fire symbolizes Christ the Light; John was a lamp that burned and shone. We Christians should be the light of the world.
Source: Rev. Fr. P. Parsch, 1958, adapted and abridged.
From “The Saint Andrew Daily Missal”
24th June, The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
“A prophet of the most High” (Alleluia), St. John is pre-figured by Isaias and Jeremias (Introit, Epistle, Gradual); moreover, he was consecrated before birth to announce Jesus (Secret) and to prepare souls for His coming.
The Gospel narrates the prodigies which accompanied his birth. Zachary gives his child the name which St. Gabriel has brought him from heaven, which signifies: The Lord has pardoned. He immediately recovers his speech and, filled with the Holy Ghost, he foretells the greatness of his son: “He shall walk before the face of the Lord to give unto the people the knowledge of salvation.”
The angel Gabriel had announced to Zachary that “many would rejoice in the birth of St. John the Baptist”. Indeed not only “the neighbours and relations of Elizabeth” solemnized the event, but every year, on its anniversary, the whole Church invites her children to share in this holy joy. She knows that the nativity “of this prophet of the most High” at this “Summer Christmas” is intimately connected with the Advent of the Messias.
After the feast of the Nativity of St. John, the days become shorter, while, on the contrary, after the nativity of the Saviour, of which this feast is the prelude, the days become longer. The Precursor must efface himself before Jesus who is the true light of faith. “He must increase,” says St. John, ”and I must decrease.”
The solstices were the occasion of pagan feasts when fires were lighted to honour the orb which gives us light. The Church christianized the rites seeing in them a symbol of St. John who was “a burning and brilliant lamp”. Indeed “she encouraged this kind of manifestation which corresponds so well with the character of the feast. The St. John bonfires happily completed the liturgical solemnity; they showed the Church and the earthly city united in one thought.” The name of the Precursor is inscribed in the Canon of the Mass at the head of the second list.
Formerly, on his feast-day three masses were celebrated in his honour, and numerous churches were dedicated to him. Parents loved to give his name to their children.
Paul the Deacon, a monk of Monte Cassino and a friend of Charlemagne, had composed, in honour of St. John the Baptist, the hymn: “Ut queant laxis.” In the thirteenth century the Benedictine monk Guy of Arezzo noticed that the notes sung on the first syllabes formed the sequence of the first six degrees of the scale. He named each degree by the corresponding syllable: “Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si” and thereby greatly facilitated the study of musical intervals.