The commemoration of John the Baptist falls, as it has since the fourth century, six months before Christmas Eve, on June 24. The annual remembrance, three days after the summer solstice, is a calendrical reflection of the relationship between the last Old Testament prophet and the Messiah, the Long-Awaited One.
In 2023, the remembrance of John the Baptist falls on a weekend, allowing lay and ordained ministers to borrow from the earnest Advent-y quality that characterized the testimony of Jesus’ older cousin, sometimes also referred to as “The Just” or “The Forerunner,” and apply it to our Eucharistic celebrations the last weekend of June.
How? The voice of the one crying in the desert calls for the repentance of sins and invites us to discover God’s radical grace anew. John’s voice can point to the foretaste of the feast to come with a one-of-a-kind accent: hearing it on the Sundays after Pentecost can be a reminder of the incredible gift of salvation in and through Jesus Christ; it may allow us to explore the connections between the Incarnation and Redemption cycles of the liturgical calendar, and it may offer a unique perspective with which to revisit the expansive nature of the gospel’s invitation.
As a historical aside, Martin Luther taught that John was an exemplar of proclamation and Christian witness. After all, John’s ministry and life were not self-serving: John never failed to point to the present Christ. Moreover, the famous Wittenberg Altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which portrays Martin Luther preaching to his congregation while pointing to the crucified Christ, is an image that recalls the Forerunner’s ministry. Hailing from another part of Christendom, our Orthodox siblings in faith emphasize John’s life and death as exceedingly instrumental in the great work of redemption. The Orthodox Apolitikion, their equivalent to our Prayer of the Day, frames John’s career in this grand context:
The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner; for you have proved to be even more venerable than the prophets, since you were granted to baptize in the running waters him whom they proclaimed. Wherefore, having contested for the truth, you rejoiced to announce the good tidings to those in Hades: that God had appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting us great mercy.
So, if you are looking to bring an exciting perspective to your summer worship, think of the Commemoration of John the Baptist: craft special prayers and topical confessional language; consider using ELW 420/421, “By All Your Saints” (with Stanza 14) as the hymn of praise; build a sermon around the words of ELW 249, “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” and use it as the hymn of the day. Finally, ponder how ACS 1038, “God We Gather as Your People,” might be the invitation to repentance our congregations need to hear. The lyrics of this hymn bring an inclusive sensibility that is refreshing to hear in June. The refrain caps every prayer/stanza with the words:
Oh, may our hearts and minds be opened,
fling the church doors open wide.
May there be room enough for ev’ryone inside.
For in God there is a welcome, in God we all belong.
May that welcome be our song.
May we find it so!