Today, June 24th, is the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This is one of the major holy days in the Prayer Book’s calendar – that kind that we could celebrate even on a Sunday if it so landed. At the principle worship service for the day, the Holy Communion, we would naturally read from Luke 1, starting at verse 57, to hear the account of John’s birth and the resulting Benedictus by his father Zechariah.
The lectionary for the Daily Office (in the 2019 Prayer Book, which I and my church uses), however, is particularly minimalist when it comes to holy days. Major Feasts such as this usually only get acknowledged in just one of the four daily lessons. In this case it’s the second lesson at Morning Prayer: Matthew 14:1-13. That passage tells the story of John’s death, which may be a bit odd for celebrating his birthday.
If you poke through lectionary history, you’ll find that the 1662 Prayer Book’s lectionary (as modified in the 19th century) contains these Gospel texts for this holy day: Matthew 3 in the morning, and Matthew 14:1-13 in the evening. This sets up a sort of progression, wherein the Communion tells us of his birth, Morning Prayer tells us of his ministry (particularly in baptizing Jesus), and Evening Prayer tells us of his death. The revised lectionary of 1922, printed as an alternative in the 1662 Prayer Book, appoints different lessons for this day, but following a similar progression-through-his life approach.
So here we are, with just Matthew 14 to work with. I suppose there is something appropriate about looking at a man’s birth and death at the same time. We bookend the life of St. John the Baptist on this day… his ministry and preaching do get more attention on the Sundays of Advent after all (in the modern calendar). He was born under extraordinary circumstances – an old childless couple conceiving a baby boy after an angelic visitation and prophecy – and he died under extraordinary circumstances: a fearful queen and a reluctant king.
King Herod’s daughter impresses the court with her dancing (whether that’s a euphemism or not, I couldn’t say for sure), and when she is offered a great reward, her mother tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. This reveals an interesting situation in the royal household: King Herod has a prisoner that has been challenging the religious status quo but he has been reluctant to execute him. His wife, however, is eager to see him dead – she doesn’t share her husband’s fear of John’s popularity, and she was particularly salty over John’s condemnation of their unlawful marriage. Who is trying to please whom? Is Herod a bit of a stooge for his wife’s conniving? We don’t have a lot of information to go on.
It is an ignominious end for such a holy man as John.
But that’s also quite appropriate to the course his life took: living in the desert, eating locusts and honey, wearing skins and hair shirts… hardly a glamorous existence. It is a mercy that his parents were so old when they bore him, as there’d be no chance they would be around to see his suffering, as Mary was for the death of Jesus. In this way we get a portrait of John the Baptist, the man, on this his birthday. We can save the specifics of his ministry for another time; today we celebrate him.
Though the Collect of the Day does take his teaching and ministry and example into account as we apply his life to Christian living. You can read about that here if you like.