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Commentary from 




Rivingtons, London, 1884



[JUNE 24.]

This festival is in the Comes of St. Jerome, as also another commemorating the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, but the date is not indicated in either case. Mabillon says that the festival of this day was in the Carthaginian Calendar before A.d. 484; and it is mentioned [circ. A.D. 400] by Maximus, Bp. of Turin, as also by St. Augustine, in several Homilies. In the Eastern Church it is kept on January 7th, the day after the holy Theophany; and the festival of the Decollation is also fixed, as in the Latin Church and our own, for August 29th. The day on which our principal Festival of St. John the Baptist is kept has been supposed to be connected with his words, "He must increase, but I must decrease;" the days of the Bridegroom are growing longer, but those of the friend of the Bridegroom are beginning to wane. So St. Augustine says [Horn. 287], "John was born to-day, and from to-day the days decrease; Christ was born on the eighth of the kalends of January, and from that day the days increase." But the 24th of June is also the proximate day of the Baptist's birth, since he was six months older than our Lord.

Although the martyrdom of St John Baptist is one of the four recorded in Holy Scripture (the other three being those of the Holy Innocents, St. Stephen, and St. James), yet the present festival, which commemorates his Nativity, appears to be the more ancient of the two dedicated to his name, and the one more generally observed. So we may judge from the Sermons both of Maximus and St. Augustine, each of whom accounts for the custom of observing the Birth and not the Martyrdom of the Precursor of our Lord as if no other festival in his honour had yet been established. "The prophets who had gone before were first born, and at a later day prophesied, but St. John Baptist heralded the Incarnation of our Lord when His Virgin Mother came to visit Elizabeth, and both the Precursor and the Holy Child were yet unborn."

The miraculous birth of St. John the Baptist, and all that we know of his subsequent history, is told us in the opening chapters of the four Gospels, in the 11th of St. Matthew, and the 9th of St. Luke. By comparing our Lord's words in Matt. xi. 14, those of the angel in Luke i. 16,17, of Zacharias in Luke ii. 76, and those of St. John himself in announcing his mission, with preceding prophecies, we see that the prophets had spoken of him more than seven hundred years before he was born, and that the very last words of the Old Testament, written about four hundred years previously, were concerning him. And, comparatively little as is said about St. John in Holy Scripture, what is said shows how important his office was, and illustrates the words of our Lord, that among all previously born of women, none was ever greater than John the Baptist.

He appears to have spent his childhood, at least, with our Blessed Lord and His mother, and it is natural to suppose that his parents lived but a few years after his birth. But when the time for his ministry came, he adopted the ancient prophetic mode of life; such as is indicated in the case of Elijah the Tishbite, who is said [2 Kings i. 8] to have been "an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins." As a prophet, and the greatest of all,—the last prophet of the old dispensation, and the first of the new,—he assailed the vices of the generation in which our Lord came, as Elijah himself had assailed those of Ahab and the Israel of that day; and so doing he brought many to repentance, and initiated a new moral life by that ordinance of Baptism with which the dispensation of Sinai ended, and that of Calvary began. And when by the power of his preaching he had prepared the hearts of the people to receive Christ as a blessing, and not as one "come to smite the earth with a curse" [Mal. iv. 6], the other part of his office was brought into exercise, that of baptizing our Lord, and witnessing to the descent of the Holy Spirit on His human nature.

Powerful as the effect of St. John the Baptist's ministrations evidently was, we have very little information given us about it. He proclaimed the coming of Christ, rebuked all classes of the people for their sins, showed them the way to turn from them, and baptized with a Baptism of water which foreshadowed the Baptism with the Holy Ghost as well as water. All people seem to have come readily to him, for the "offence of the Cross" had not yet begun, and the prophet who attracted was no "carpenter's son," but "a prophet indeed," the son of a man well known among them, a priest of the regular succession of Aaron, prophesying as Elijah, Isaiah, or Ezekiel, with the outward appearance and habit of a " man sent from God," and telling of that which they longed for, the near approach of their Messiah. This is all we learn of the ministry of the Baptist from Holy Scripture, and tradition has added little or nothing more. His martyrdom appears to have taken place very early in our Lord's ministry, and when St. John himself was only about thirty years of age; and since his work was done, we may see in it the manner in which the course of even the evil of this world is so regulated, that it ministered by a quick death to the rapid removal of a saint from the Church on earth to the Church in Heaven when the time of his reward was come.

INTROIT.—The Lord hath called me by name from the womb of my mother. He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword. In the shadow of His hand hath He hid me: He hath made me like a polished shaft, and in His quiver hath He concealed me. Ps. It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to praise Thy Name, O Thou most highest. Glory be.