Today is the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist (or Birth of John the Baptist, or Nativity of the Forerunner, or colloquially Johnmas or (in German) Johannistag). Ordinarily, the day of a saint’s death is usually celebrated as his or her feast day, because it marks his or her dies natalis, or birth into eternal life. To this rule there are two notable exceptions: the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary and that of John the Baptist. According to Catholic tradition and teaching, Mary was free from original sin from the first moment of her existence (her conception itself is commemorated by a separate feast), while John was cleansed of original sin in the womb of his mother.
The sole biblical account of the birth of John the Baptist comes from the Gospel of Luke. John’s parents, Zechariah, or Zachary, a Jewish priest and Elizabeth, were without children and both were beyond the age of child-bearing. During Zechariah’s rotation to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem, he was chosen by lot to offer incense at the Golden Altar in the Holy Place. The archangel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that he and his wife would give birth to a child, and that they should name him John. However, because Zechariah did not believe the message of Gabriel, he was rendered speechless until the time of John’s birth. At that time, his relatives wanted to name the child after his father, and Zechariah wrote, “His name is John”, whereupon he recovered his ability to speak (Luke 1:5-25; 1:57-66).
If you follow my thoughts in this blog concerning the reliability of Luke’s testimony, you will know that I consider all of his writing prior to the ministry of Jesus (e.g. http://www.bookofdaystales.com/visitation-mary/ ) to be a convenient fabrication to explain why the disciples of John the Baptist should combine with the disciples of Jesus, rather than being rival factions. I am also less than happy with endless church dogma that developed in the 2nd century onwards — Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth, Ascension of Mary, Original Sin, etc. etc. — that attempted to make logical sense out of the many conundrums that the gospels left unanswered.
At the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she would conceive of the Holy Ghost, he also informed her that Elizabeth, her cousin, was already six months pregnant (Luke 1:36). Mary then journeyed to visit Elizabeth. Luke’s Gospel recounts that the baby “leapt” in Elizabeth’s womb at the greeting of Mary (Luke 1:44).
The Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24 comes three months after the celebration on March 25 of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy, and six months before the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. The purpose of these festivals is not to celebrate the exact dates of these events, but simply to commemorate them in an interlinking way. The Nativity of John the Baptist thus anticipates the feast of Christmas.
So, why does the celebration fall on June 24th rather than June 25th if the date is to be precisely six months before Christmas? It has often been claimed that the Church authorities wanted to Christianize the pagan solstice celebrations and for this reason advanced John’s feast as a substitute. This explanation is questionable because in the Middle Ages the solstice took place around the middle of June due to the inaccuracy of the Julian calendar. It was only in 1582, through the Gregorian calendar reform, that the solstice returned to June 21 as it had been in the 4th century.
Therefore, a more likely reason why the festival falls on June 24 lies in the Roman way of counting, which proceeded backward from the Kalends (first day) of the succeeding month. Christmas was “the eighth day before the Kalends of January” (Octavo Kalendas Januarii). Consequently, Saint John’s Nativity was put on the “eighth day before the Kalends of July.” However, since June has only thirty days, in our present way of counting, the feast falls on June 24
The Nativity of John the Baptist is one of the oldest festivals of the Christian church, being listed by the Council of Agde in 506 as one of that region’s principal festivals, where it was a day of rest and, like Christmas, was celebrated with three Masses: a vigil, at dawn, and at midday. It is also one of the patronal feasts of the Order of Malta.
Like the Birth of the Virgin, the subject is often shown in art, especially from Florence, whose patron saint John is. It was often given a prosperous contemporary setting, and often only the presence of a halo or two distinguishes it on a desco da parto or birth tray from a secular depiction of a mother receiving visitors while lying-in. The scene in the fresco cycle of the life of John in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is probably the most famous, created by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop between 1485 and 1490.
Martin Luther wrote a hymn about baptism, “Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam”, which became associated with the Baptist’s day. The feast was celebrated in Lutheran Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach composed three church cantatas for the occasion, especially a chorale cantata on Luther’s hymn:
Ihr Menschen, rühmet Gottes Liebe, BWV 167, 24 June 1723
Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 7, 24 June 1724
Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30, 24 June 1738 or a later year
Because today is a patronal feast in Malta I have chosen a Maltese recipe, kusksu, which is a broad bean and pasta soup, named for the pasta in it (i.e. kusksu) which sounds like couscous, and may be related historically. On many YouTube videos cooks talk about this soup as an autumn dish, perhaps because they equate soup with cool weather, but broad beans are seasonal in spring in Malta (where they grow like weeds). Here is a video in Maltese which is foreign to me, but captures the idea: a base soup of onions, garlic, vegetables, and tomato paste into which you add the broad beans and pasta, and then top off with local goat cheese.