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The road to Christmas starts here – celebrating St John the Baptist

The Baptism of Christ, by Pietro Vannucci (1448-1523)

24 June is the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist – the ‘Forerunner' and last of those to pre-announce the coming of Christ, following a long line of prophets over the previous hundreds of years.

Where Christmas (the nativity of Jesus) occurs in mid-winter and around the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere, celebrations for St. John the Baptist have always settled around the summer solstice. There are a few reasons for this.

At the Annunciation (25th March, when Jesus was conceived in Mary of the Holy Ghost) we are told that John was six months older (Luke 1:26, Luke 1:36), and therefore to be born six months before Our Lord. Some speculation exists about the precise date of the 24th June (as opposed to the 25th December), but sources reckon the three Feasts (Annunciation, Nativity of St John the Baptist, and Nativity of Our Lord) are all an octave before the start of the next month.

John the Baptist, then, was six months older than Our Lord; and went about his life as a prophet telling of the coming the Saviour and to call everyone to a repentance. He baptised in the lower Jordan valley towards the Dead Sea and said his baptism was for repentance. (The Sacrament of Baptism was only instituted later by Our Lord.)

In the Gospels (John 3:25-36) we read the testimony of John as he clarifies the difference between himself ‘of the earth’, and Jesus ’that cometh from heaven’ and declares (John 3:30) “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

By a pious custom, these words have been taken, in an applied sense, to mirror the oscillation between summer and winter. On this day in the height of summer, St. John the Baptist and his role in unfolding salvation are celebrated as a Solemnity and First Class Feast of the Church. Yet from this point forward, the days decrease and the nights increase as we head towards the night of Christ's birth at Christmas.


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