12th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Dear Friends,

Tomorrow, June 24, is the solemn feast in honor of the birth or nativity of John the Baptist. Usually, the feast days of the saints are celebrated on or around the date of their death. John the Baptist is an exception due to his uniqueness as the Forerunner, the Voice crying out in the Wilderness, in the history of salvation. At the same time, the Church wants to be more conscious of the witness of John’s character as a model for us to grow in holiness.

It is enlightening for us to know a little church history and tradition associated with the birthday celebrations of John the Baptist. This is one of the oldest feasts on the Church calendar. In the early Church, as in medieval times, this was one of the biggest feasts of the year. As was done on Christmas, three masses were offered, one at midnight, and two in the morning. All over Europe, fires were lit on mountains and hilltops on the eve of this feast. The people had parties and lit bonfires in honor of John because our Lord called him a “burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35). These fires, sometimes called St. John’s fires, were lit on St. John’s Eve and burned until at least midnight. These fires were also a sign of Christ the Light, and a reminder that we, too, are called to be a light for the world. In Catholic sections of Europe, people prayed together to Saint John for his intercession that the summer might be blessed in homes, fields, and country. Finally, they performed some of the traditional folk dances, usually accompanied by singing and music. In addition to celebrating around outdoor fires, other customs included decorating one’s home with flowers, making floral wreaths (which were sometimes sent down a river as a symbol of Jesus’ baptism), placing sprigs of St. Johns wort around the house much as we do Palm Sunday palms, and eating strawberries. This feast placed three months after the feast of the Annunciation, and six months before Christmas served the useful purpose of supplanting the immoral pagan feasts of the Summer Solstice. St. John the Baptist was highly honored throughout from the beginning. Proof of this is, among other things, the fact that fifteen churches were dedicated to him in the ancient imperial city of Constantinople.

William Shakespeare in his play Romeo and Juliet wrote, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Actually, Biblical names have often a rich meaning. When the time came to circumcise this child, neighbors and relatives expected him to be named after his father, Zechariah. But his mother insisted, “No, he is to be called John.” “The name, “John,” in Hebrew is “Yehohanan.” It means, “The Lord is gracious,” or maybe better, “The Lord shows favor.” The birthday of John Baptist relates to the birth of Jesus. The Church selected the time of the winter solstice to celebrate the birth of Jesus because from that time the days gradually grow longer; the amount of daylight increases. But the Church selected the time of the summer solstice to celebrate the birth of the Baptist because from this time the days gradually grow shorter; the amount of daylight diminishes. This symbolizes the words of the Baptist in speaking of Jesus, “He must increase while I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

May we too allow Jesus to increase in the way we witness to Him and His teachings.

Your brother in Christ,

Fr. Abraham Orapankal