According to the gospel of Luke the annunciation to Mary took place ‘in the sixth month’ of the pregnancy of Elizabeth (Luke 1.26). So their two boys, John the Baptist and Jesus, are taken to have been born six months apart. We celebrate the birthday of Jesus on 25 December and so, by a certain kind of literal logic, we celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist on 24 June. (Why a day’s difference though?)
Of course we have no idea when either child was born. In the early Christian centuries the celebration of the birth of Christ came to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year sees the sun turn around and begin its ascent northwards. The festival of ‘sol invictus’, the unconquered sun, was replaced in Christendom with the festival of the birth of ‘sol iustitiae’, the sun of justice, Christ the Lord.
It means also that the birthday of John the Baptist coincides, more or less, with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Celebrations of Saint John’s Night owe something to the natural instinct to mark these turning points in the earth’s year. Older pagan celebrations were baptised by Christianity, taken over and given a new meaning. Already in the Bible the Jewish festivals are combined celebrations of the events of salvation history and the seasonal changes of the year, sowing and springtime and harvest.
Can we take something, then, from the fact that we celebrate John’s birth at midsummer? At a time when the light in the northern hemisphere is at its strongest and brightest we celebrate the birth of one who ‘was not himself the light but came as a witness to the light’ (John 1.8). Just as the intense light of dawn can be confused with that of sunset, it was not immediately clear whether John might not be the light promised by God. Some of his followers and some of the Jewish leaders wondered whether John might be the Messiah.
But he is clear that there is someone greater coming after him, one of his own followers, one baptised by him and that this one is ‘the true light who was coming into the world’ (John 1.9). John is a ‘herald’ who announces the arrival of someone more important than himself and he points out Jesus to his disciples, recognising him as ‘the lamb of God’ (John 1.36). We see John, in the gospels, making Jesus known, pointing him out and sending others to him.
Jesus in turn says that John the Baptist is the greatest of human beings. There is no prophet as great as he is. John is so totally given to his mission that he is called simply ‘a voice’, crying in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repent, return and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Like all the prophets John excites opposition and criticism. Eventually he will be executed at the command of Herod but before that the religious leaders had campaigned against him, accusing him of being possessed by demons (Matthew 11.18). As well as being the voice of prophetic consolation, this new Elijah is a ‘troubler of Israel’ as much as he is her comforter.
The light that shines from John the Baptist is the grace and holiness of God’s people of the old covenant. Among all those just men and women who looked forward to the deliverance of Israel, John stands at the head. He straddles two epochs in the history of God’s relationship with human beings because the preaching of the Christian gospel begins with the preaching of John the Baptist. When John appeared in the wilderness, what Saint Paul calls ‘the fullness of time’ (Galatians 4.4; Ephesians 1.10) had arrived.
From now on the days will shorten and the sun decline in the northern hemisphere. But it remains midsummer in God’s relationship with his people. Winter is over and summer has come. Sin and death have been conquered by the one to whom John points. Christ our Saviour is always with us, shining even in the darkness. This is midsummer indeed, to see ‘the light of the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4.5). The finger of John the Baptist points always to Him who is the Light that the darkness can never overcome (John 1.5).