St. John the Baptist was born approximately six months before Christ. The Catholic Church celebrates his birthday on June 24th, just as the days are getting shorter.
This great Saint’s birth was surrounded all sorts of ironies. First, on the eighth day, the day of his circumcision, his relatives and neighbors assumed he was going to be named Zachariah, the name of his father. But that was not to be. Instead, Elizabeth insisted that he was to be named John as foretold by the angel Gabriel. Interestingly enough, they did not take her word for it saying, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." Incredulous, those in the synagogue looked to the man of the house, Zechariah, for his directive. But he was mute, punished some months earlier for not believing the good news the angel Gabriel had delivered to him while he was a priest in the Temple. For some reason Zachariah could not bring himself to believe that he and his wife could conceive a child with God’s help. Nevertheless, Elizabeth had already settled the matter, as if with authority. Despite breaking with family tradition, and with deference to his wife, he wrote down that his son’s name shall be John, meaning- “God is gracious.” Immediately, Zachariah was healed and was able to talk.
Names are important in the Hebrew tradition. New names given by God or otherwise, signify a new and distinct mission. Adam named his newly created companion, “Woman.” Abram was renamed Abraham (father of many) by the Lord himself; Jacob was renamed Israel (struggled with God) by an angel; the name Moses means drawn out of the water; Simon was renamed Peter (Rock) by Christ; and Saul took on the new name of Paul after the Risen Lord had appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
The fact that John the Baptist did not take on the name of his father suggested that he would not follow in his footsteps as a priest. In fact, St. John the Baptist would help usher in a new priesthood by baptizing the new High Priest in the river Jordan. Instead of sacrificing lambs in the Temple, he would spend many a year preparing for his mission in the desert. At the appointed time he would prepare the way for the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. His father, Zachariah, belonged to the Levitical priesthood that served the purpose of foreshadowing the “pure offering” the prophet Malachi foretold; that is, the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the New Covenant. The former consisted of offering mere animal sacrifices which merely symbolized forgiveness of sins, the latter involved a real power from heaven that absolved sins and restored the dignity of the human spirit.
What was said to the prophet Jeremiah was equally applicable to St. John the Baptist: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” Indeed, Jesus, from the Mary’s womb, and through her greeting, sanctified John before he was born. He jumped with joy because the Holy Spirit had entered into his soul as a permanent Guest. And it was this Divine Spirit, in the form of a dove, that would point out the Messiah too him at the river Jordan.
St. John’s calling from the womb is not much different than ours in that every Christian is called to point out the Messiah for others to see. Also, like St. John the Baptist, our calling often transcends what any of our family members or neighbors could imagine for us. It just goes to show us that the biggest plans of all, that is, for our lives, can only come from the Lord who knew us before we were formed in the womb.