June 23, three months after the angel announces to Mary that Elizabeth is six months pregnant (March 25) John the Baptist is born.
From his birth John the Baptist was destined, not to follow Zachariah his father as a priest in the temple, but to go into the desert to give himself solely into God’s hands to be readied to welcome the Messiah, Jesus Christ. John is the last of the Jewish prophets, the first to recognize Jesus, the only saint whose birth and death are celebrated in our church calendar.
It may have changed, but there’s an interesting Sunday walk in Rome I’d recommend. Go out the city gate at the Porta di San Sebastiano and walk south along one of the oldest roads in the world, the Via Appia, to the catacombs and church of San Sebastiano. Outside the city gates, you’re in what the ancient Romans called the “limes,” the limits, the world beyond the city, a different world altogether.
To the ancient Romans the “limes” meant the end of civilized, reasonable life. No place to live, they thought. Get where you’re going as soon as you can. “Speed limit” comes from the word. Go beyond the limit and you can lose your life.
Few people today are usually on that road, deserted fields all around. The only sound you can hear is the sound of your own breathing and your footsteps.
The last line of St. Luke’s gospel for today’s feast says of John:
“The child grew and become strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”
How did John become strong in a desert? Centuries before, God led the Jews from Egypt into the desert. With no map or provisions they went into a world unknown. Yet they were in the hands of God, who became their strength.
Most of us stay within our limits; we don’t go to live in physical deserts. Yet, try as we may to avoid them, we face them anyway in things we didn’t expect, like sickness, or death, or separation, or divorce, or the loss of a job, or lost friends or lost places we know and love. The desert’s never far from any of us.
The Via Appia brings you to the catacombs, the great underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead. They buried them there, I think, not to hide them, but because this place was an image of a new unknown world. The “limes,” marked the end of this life and foreshadowed a new life. The dead no longer belonged in the city; they were going to a new city.
Life holds its doubts, fears, uncertainty. But we don’t face limits alone. In the “limes” God alone has you in his hands. God gives you strength and brings you where you’re meant to be. God is there. God is there.
Like other ancient church feasts, the Nativity of John the Baptist is tied to cosmology. John’s birth coincides with the summer solstice. He begins to decrease to make way for the one who will increase. The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is celebrated by the Orthodox Church June 24.
Birth of John the Baptist. Orthodox Church of America.