June 24th is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. It would seem strange to our secular world that he would be called the Apostle of Joy.
St. John was a prophet during the time of Jesus. He lived in the desert wearing clothes of camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. John was in his early thirties when he was beheaded by King Herod at the behest of Herod’s wife. His head was presented to Herodias on a silver platter, leaving John’s disciples to come and collect the rest of his body.
How did John come to be called an “apostle of joy”? What was joyful about his short and difficult life?
By the time I was about 5 or 6 years old, I knew that I was loved, that my grandparents had come from Sicily to make a life in the United States. I knew that my mom had been orphaned at age 4 and lived until age 17 in a Catholic orphanage in Charleston, SC. I knew that my parents had met during World War II, though I had no idea what that war was about. I had a younger sister at that age with another one on the way.
So I started thinking about John the Baptist. What did he know by the age of 5 or 6? I imagine John being told early in his life what a blessing he was. I imagine that John knew that his mother, Elizabeth, had long been unable to have children. I imagine that John was told that the angel Gabriel visited his father Zechariah as his father worked in the Temple in Jerusalem, announcing to Zechariah that he would soon have a son.
In my mind’s eye I can see John, holding his father’s hand, as Zechariah shows him the Temple and points out where God’s angel spoke with him so long ago. I imagine John knew that Zechariah didn’t believe the angel and was struck mute until John’s birth. I am sure that John was told what the angel said about this soon to be born son, about how he would be great in the eyes of the world. I am also sure that Zechariah repeated the prophecy he had been given about what John would do during his life and that prophecy was repeated often and remembered by John and his parents.
We don’t know when John’s parents died, how long they had had the joy of knowing their son. When we next meet John in the Bible stories, he is preaching in the Judean desert, a foreboding and mysterious place not far from the Qumran community and the Dead Sea. Scholars expect that John spent some time with the community as the Bible says that he lived in the desert before he began to preach.