The Church celebrates only three birthdays: that of Our Lord Jesus Christ on 25 December, Our Blessed Lady on 8 September and St John the Baptist on 24 June. In general, she is much more interested in the ‘birthday into heaven’ or day of a saint’s death. One can see why the ordinary, human birthday of Christ or his mother would be important, but that of John the Baptist? Not only do we celebrate his birthday, we celebrate it with much more ceremony than the day of his martyrdom. His birthday ranks as a solemnity, the highest form of liturgical celebration, his martyrdom as a mere obligatory memoria. That in itself tells us something important. It is John’s role as forerunner that we remember above all. Jean Daniélouu called him ‘the one joy man’, a phrase that captures perfectly both John’s extraordinary joyfulness and the meaning of his existence. He had only one purpose in life: to make Christ known. Once that was achieved, there was nothing more to do, and so he died, proclaiming to the last his faith in the goodness of God with an undiminished zeal for holiness and truth.
It is significant that John’s birthday is celebrated as the light begins to wane. We are scarcely aware of it as midsummer glitters and shines all around, but it is a fact. The Fathers loved to see the birth of the one who must decrease as mirroring the coming of the true Light in the darkest time of the year. It is a lovely image, particularly beloved of monastics, but perhaps for us today there is another resonance. Christianity now appears old to many. It has lost its first fervour and in the West its influence is waning. The world is weary of it. But to those of us who believe, it can never be old and we can never weary of proclaiming the gospel. Today’s feast is a call to examine our consciences: how do we proclaim Christ? Do we do so with joy and zeal, ready to confront the Herods of our own time, or are we timid, joyless, reluctant to be counted? Our answer, like John’s, will be enfleshed in our lives.