St. John the Baptist
224. St. John the Baptist, the son of Zachary and Elizabeth, straddles the both Old and New Testaments. His parents were reckoned as “just before God” (Lk 1, 6). John the Baptist is a major figure in the history of salvation. While in his mother’s womb, he recognised the Saviour, as he was borne in his mother’s womb (cf. Lk 1, 39-45); his birth was accompanied by great signs (cf. Lk 1, 57-66); he retired to the desert where he led a life of austerity and penance (cf, Lk 1, 80; Mt 3, 4); “Prophet of the Most High” (Lk 1, 76), the word of God descended on him (Lk 3, 2); “he went through the whole of the Jordan district proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3,3); like the new Elijah, humble and strong, he prepared his people to receive the Lord (cf. Lk 1, 17); in accordance with God’s saving plan, he baptized the Saviour of the World in the waters of the Jordan (cf. Mt 3, 13-16); to his disciples, he showed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God” (John 1, 29), “the Son of God” (John 1, 34), the Bridegroom of the new messianic community (cf. John 3, 28-30); he was imprisoned and decapitated by Herod for his heroic witness to the truth (cf. Mk 6, 14-29), thereby becoming the Precursor of the Lord’s own violent death, as he had been in his prodigious birth and prophetic preaching. Jesus praised him by attributing to him the glorious phrase “of all children born to women, there is no one greater than John” (Lk 7, 28).
225. The cult of St. John the Baptist has been present in the Christian Church since ancient time. From a very early date, it acquired popular forms and connotations. In addition to the celebration of his death (29 August), of all the Saints he is the only one whose birth is also celebrated (24 June) – as with Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In virtue of having baptised Jesus in the Jordan, many baptisteries are dedicated to him and his image as “baptizer” is to found close to many baptismal founts. He is the patron Saint of those condemned to death or who have been imprisoned for the witness to the faith, in virtue of the harsh prison which he endured and of the death which he encountered.
In all probability, the date of John the Baptists’ birth (24 June) was fixed in relation to that of Christ (25 December): according to what was said by the Angel Gabriel, when Mary conceived Our Saviour, Elizabeth had already been with child for six months (cf Lk 1, 26.36). The date of 24 June is also linked to the solar cycle of the Northern hemisphere. The feast is celebrated as the Sun, turning towards the South of the zodiac, begins to decline: a phenomenon that was taken to symbolize John the Baptist who said in relation to Jesus: “illum oportet crescere, me autem minui” (John 3, 30).
John’s mission of witnessing to the light (cf John 1, 7) lies at the origin of the custom of blessing bonfires on St John’s Eve – or at least gave a Christian significance to the practice. The Church blesses such fires, praying God that the faithful may overcome the darkness of the world and reach the “indefectible light” of God(309).