Feast of the Birthday of John the Baptist
We celebrate the importance of the Baptist with two feasts during the year. Today we celebrate his birthday. In August we remember his death when we celebrate the Beheading of John the Baptist. We also preach about the Baptist in Advent when we prepare for Christmas. Then it is the Baptist who cries out “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Then it is the same Baptist who is remembered by the writer Flannery O’Connor in the phrase she puts into the mouth of a young southern preacher and healer in her story The River. He chastises those among the congregation who come only for healing: “If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me.”
We are familiar with the artists of the renaissance whose paintings of the Madonna and Christ Child help us see the Incarnation of God in the little child. But a third favorite character in their paintings is John the Baptist. They paint him at different points in his life and death.
But today is a birthday party and we recall fittingly the many paintings of him as the little boy who is the playful companion of Jesus.
Always the two boys are looking and gesturing towards one another somehow conscious at their young age of their common destiny: itinerant preachers both announcing and bringing about a new world order; but both brutally executed by powers beyond their control.
Scholars tell us that paintings and marble busts of these two boys, so prominent in fifteenth century Italy, were actually a concrete representation for families of the hope that they had for their own children to grow in virtue. A treatise of the time on raising children encourages parents to decorate their homes with paintings of the men and women saints as children so as to inspire their own girls and boys. There were even childlike dolls in those days depicting the saints as children…something foreign in our own culture of Barbie and Ken.
Viewing the paintings of John and Jesus in their childhood puts me in a good mood. I dispel from my heart some of the playpen conflicts of my youth. I am thinking of the time that my friend Michael and I had a brawl in the playpen and I lost. But with scenes in our hearts and minds of Jesus and John the Baptist, we understand this feast as a feast of peace and of hope in the household, as a family birthday party. It is a feast, too, for those of us adults who take care of children in any way and who can help fulfill the hopes and dreams of children.
Happy Birthday, John.