Today is a special day for many reasons. June 24 is traditionally observed as the Nativity of John the Baptist. (Happy birthday St. John; pray for us!) This year, June 24 is also the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. John’s mission was to prepare the way for Jesus; today we remember in a special way, the birthday of the prophet and the heart of his Lord.
This is a coincidence, because John’s day is based on the civil solar calendar (set up by Julius Caesar and amended by Pope Gregory) while the day of the Sacred Heart is based on the lunar calendar (set up in the Law of Moses and used to fix both Passover and Easter). The two calendars dance around each other in a complicated pattern. So while Christmas is always December 25, the date of Easter is different each year, based on the phase of the moon. This year the first full moon of Spring was relatively late, May 16, and Easter followed immediately on May 17.
The date of Easter determined many other dates in 2022 as well: Ash Wednesday is always at “E-46” (46 days before Easter), and Pentecost is always at “E+49” (the seventh Sunday after). After Pentecost we left Easter-tide behind (until next year), and we are now in so-called “ordinary time”, where the date of Easter has less effect on our liturgical calendar. But there are a few more Easter-based observations: Trinity Sunday at “E+56” and Corpus Christi Sunday at “E+63”. Finally today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, which is defined at “E+68”, the third Friday after Pentecost. After today I think we might be done with lunar holidays, for 2022.
The Church regulates its calendar so that if a lunar and solar holiday happen to fall on the same day (in some particular year), then the more important holiday is celebrated on the chosen day, and the other holiday, if also important, is moved to a neighboring day. (This is exactly what a “movable feast” is, besides the cool title of a famous book.) And so, for this reason, we celebrated John’s birthday yesterday on June 23, even though next year it will be back to June 24.
People who are concerned for the unborn and their mothers often ponder the significance of the encounter in Luke’s gospel between St. Elizabeth and the Blessed Mother, where the yet-unborn John makes a vigorous gesture in his mother’s womb at the approach of Jesus hidden within his mother Mary. The poetry around this event, in the mouths of both women, is some of the very best in all of sacred Scripture. Surely today we may also ponder the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court removed the federal license for abortion on John’s birth day and the day of the Sacred Heart.
We may also ponder the odd fact pointed out by Rabbi Jonathan Cahn that we are in the midst of the 50th year since the now-overturned decision of January 22, 1972, a literal jubilee year of that decision. While few would think that abortion and jubilees go together, it fits. The Law of Moses instituted the jubilees not only for celebration but also to cancel debts, free captives, and restore old boundaries.
There is one more reason today is special: It is Friday, and every Friday is a penitential day for Catholics. (That remains true even after Vatican II.) When we pray our Rosary on Friday, we remember the Passion of Christ, the events of the Cross that marked Good Friday and are remembered ever since. The “Five Sorrowful Mysteries” we recall are the agony in Gethsemane, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, and the final execution.
John the Baptist said, “He who comes after me is greater than me because he came before me… I am not worthy to untie his sandal.” Jesus praised him saying, “Among those born of woman none are greater than John.” Given their special connection, it is not surprising that John followed his Lord closely, even in the mystery of suffering. Like Jesus, John fasted in the wilderness, practicing the repentance he preached. He was humiliated by the departure of his disciples, and suffered doubts about his mission, and Jesus would as well. John was arrested, mistreated, and executed, again as a forerunner to Jesus.
In fact, some of the events of John’s life may be observed in parallel with Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, as follows.
In his agony in the garden, Jesus asked God to take away the impending doom, though he added “nevertheless not by will but Thine”, and embraced his mission, even while asking it to be taken away. John, when in prison, doubted his life’s work, sending messengers to Jesus asking, “are you really the right person or should we wait for another?” In effect, “was I right to endorse him, given how badly things are turning out?” John’s agony of doubt in prison was a foreshadowing of Jesus in the garden.
The second sorrowful mystery is the arrest and scourging of Jesus. Surely John’s arrest by Herod is also a mystery of suffering in John’s life. Both men were arrested not for violence or fraude but for verbally offending the rulers of the people: John denounced Herod’s taking of his brother’s wife, while Jesus cleansed the temple of commerce and preached the good news, even when it made the religious authorities look incompetent.
The third mystery is the crowning with thorns, as the soldiers mocked Jesus as an imposter king, and Pilate presented him to the mob, bloody in a purple robe, saying “Here’s your man!” The special fruit of this mystery is humility, the humility of Jesus enduring scorn in silent patience. John was not crowned so cruelly, but his humility was deeply tested earlier, when his spectacular success as a prophet and preacher dissipated. This was because his fame and followers were taken by the next preacher, the successful Jesus. John’s humble words (the Gospel of John, chapter 3) are for all of us: “My joy is fullfilled; he must increase and I must decrease.”
The fourth mystery is the carrying of the cross, an activity which is not optional according to Jesus who said, long before his disgrace and arrest, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” John was a forerunner in this as well; he was known as a mighty ascetic of the desert, a preacher of repentance. John carried his cross before anyone knew the sign of the cross. After his death, Jesus noted (in Luke 7) that John’s “type” was a sorrowful one, in comparison to Jesus’s own: “John preached repentance in the desert and you didn’t listen, while I go to people’s homes and you say I am a drunkard and glutton.”
The final mystery of suffering is death. Jesus died in the worst possible way at the hands of the civil leaders under the indictment of the religious leaders and the hatred of the mob. John was forerunner in this as well, though more quietly, beheaded in Herod’s jail at the request of Herod’s stepdaughter.
Surely all of these events are treasured up in the heart of Jesus, that heart which is truly divine, perfectly human, therefore above all other hearts most sacred. Surely the great sorrows of John’s life, like the sorrows of Jesus, are treasured up and transformed into victory, from the mystery of suffering into the deeper mystery of joy.
May we enjoy a thoughtfully happy day: a happy Friday, a happy birthday of the Forerunner John, and a happy solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of all hearts most sorrowful and joyful and loving. Joy is the blueprint for today and every solemnity and feast, from the days of Moses and Nehemiah (8:10) to the present Christian age, as it says in Scripture, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”