“In the first place, John the Baptist makes us rediscover that God calls us from when we are in our mother’s womb.” The friars of the Custody of the Holy Land celebrated the solemnity of the birth of St John the Baptist in Ain Karem, a small town a few kilometres from Jerusalem. As every year, they gathered on the evening of 23 June in the shrine of St John of the Desert for the celebration of the First Vespers and on 24 June in that of St John ”in the Mountain” for the Solemn Mass presided by the Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Francesco Patton.
In the places of John the Baptist
There are three places in Ain Karem that hold the memory of St John. The shrine of the Visitation recalls the encounter between the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth and the leap of joy by John in his mother’s womb. Christian tradition situates the place where John the Baptist was hidden and thus escaped the “massacre of the innocents” and where he prepared his public ministry in St John of the Desert. On the vigil of the solemnity, after the recital of the First Vespers, the Franciscan friars go down in a procession to the grotto where, according to tradition, St John lived. St John in the Mountain is believed to be the place where John was born, in the house of Zachariah, his father. At the end of the Solemn Mass, the friars go down into the grotto alongside the main altar and intone the “Benedictus” in memory of this event.
A name that is a project
John is the only saint in the Catholic calendar whose day of birth is also celebrated. His life is considered a watershed between the Old and the New Testaments. In his homily of the First Vespers, fr. Alessandro Coniglio, secretary of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, who presided the celebration, recalled the passages from the Old Testament that refer to John as the new Elijah, who has to prepare the way (and the people) in front of the coming Lord. In the homily of the celebration (you can find the full text here), fr. Patton emphasized the passage from waiting for the Messiah to the personal encounter with Him: “It is precisely this project of God on us that gives meaning, unity and fullness to all our person and to the whole of our life.”
He will be called John
There is a special bond between St John the Baptist and St Francis of Assisi. The latter was baptized with the name of John, in honour of John the Baptist, according to his mother’s wishes, whereas the name Francis was given to him later by his father. Thomas of Celano writes in his Second Life: “The name of John is well suited to the mission that he then performed, whereas that of Francis for his fame.” In his “Writings,” Francis often mentions the Precursor and shows a special devotion towards him.