23 September: a Conception, a Caesar and an Equinox

On September 23rd, we commemorate the conception of St. John the Baptist, who paved the way for Christ’s message of salvation. In Orthodox circles, he’s often called the Forerunner, i.e. the precursor, to Christ.

Although St. John is a pretty big deal, his conception is prone to falling off our annual radar—it’s not preceded by a fast, it’s not one of the 12 great feasts of the Orthodox calendar, and there are several other days during the year when we commemorate more prominent events of his life.

But honestly, I love this particular feast. It’s a linchpin of liturgical, biological, astronomical and historical timeframes. Reflecting on it, I’m reminded of why we (are trying to) sync our lives with the Christian calendar in the first place.

But first, let’s back up a few weeks. And at this point I should probably make a confession: sometimes, I like to tease the liturgical calendar for being so in tune with… shall we say… certain realities of human existence. We celebrate Christmas exactly nine months after the Annunciation, for example.

Similar “realities” are at work when you look at the conception of St. John the Baptist.

On September 5th, the Church remembers his parents. Elizabeth and Zechariah struggled to conceive until they were quite old. Long after they’d lost hope, Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel, foretelling the birth of their son, St. John, who would “be filled with the Holy Spirit before he is born” (Luke 1:15).

This visitation occurred while Zechariah, was fulfilling his priestly service in the temple, a duty that during most parts of the Jewish year lasted about one week. After this was finished, Zechariah went home and Elizabeth became pregnant (Luke 1:23-24). Between the 5th and 23rd of September, there’s two and a half weeks. Let’s do the math: that’s a week for Zechariah’s service in the temple, a few days to travel home, and a week for Elizabeth to become pregnant.  

Elizabeth and Zechariah
“So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived.” (Luke 1:23)

 

If I may be so bold, there is something vaguely PG-13 in all of this.

But there is also something beautiful and sacred about how human life and biological timeframes are woven into the calendar. We venerate real, flesh-and-bone people, who in their humanity loved God in ways we can’t and don’t want to forget. Their struggles and joys and prayers—as otherworldly as they sometimes seem now—were lived in realtime.

Every now and again, the calendar reminds us of this and sometimes it makes a person blush.

***

I think it was the late Fr. Thomas Hopko who was fond of saying there can be no Mariology without Christology—the Orthodox Church venerates the Virgin Mary because her life and God-bearing womb point to Christ and His incarnation. As I mentioned in a previous post, the mariological feasts envelop the major events of Christ’s life throughout the year—“bearing” Him in liturgical time, so to speak.

We can extend this idea to a great many feast days that, in their own unique ways, testify to the active presence of God in and through temporality and physicality. We praise a God who wants to be involved with life, in all its messiness and feebleness and “realities.”       

Speaking of certain realities, we don’t know exactly when the Conception of the Forerunner made its way into the Church calendar. On the one hand, St. John the Forerunner was highly revered in the first few centuries of Christianity—in ancient Constantinople alone, there were 15 churches dedicated to his name. His birth (June 24) ranks among some of the oldest Christian holidays–the first written reference to it was in 506, though it’s likely it had been celebrated before that point as well. To give you a reference point, this is around the same time the celebration of Christmas was coming into being (Pascha had been celebrated basically since the beginning of Christianity). That the two are a half year apart is not accidental–the Gospels tell us that St. John was born six months before Christ.

But much less is known about how his conception came to be a feast day.

This would be a good time to remember that, in the mentality of the Church, the significance of feast days does not rest on historical “accuracy” or precise dates that line up with historical events. Although many saint days do occur on the dates those saints actually fell asleep, in determining the dates of other feasts, historical accuracy is more elusive. We don’t know the actual day of Christ’s conception or birth, for example, still less those of His early followers.

And that’s not really the point—the liturgical calendar is not a history textbook. It is a learning tool, but the lessons it seeks to teach us have less to do with dates and trivia facts. They concern our souls and our pernicious human habit of forgetting God.

In the divine mystery by which the Holy Spirit sustains the Church through time and change, feasts came to occupy the calendar on dates that are “true” on deeper levels than the modern sense of historical accuracy. This is especially true when you dig deeper into the conception of the Forerunner.

Because St. John was conceived on 23 September, for example, his nativity coincides with the summer solstice. After this juncture in the northern hemisphere, the light of the sun grows gradually dimmer until Christmas time, when we celebrate not the winter solstice but the birth of the light of the world. The annually diminishing sunlight reminds us of the Forerunner’s own words, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). (See note 1 below.)

Another point worth mentioning is that in the first few centuries of Christianity, September 23rd was famous for reasons that had nothing to do with St. John the Baptist: it was the birthday of Caesar Augustus, whose list of life accomplishments included, you know, being the first sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Like Caesar Augustus himself, this date was a pretty big deal—in some parts, it signaled a new tax year and Indiction cycle, and it was the original Church new year.  

The Roman Empire officially fell in AD 476—mere decades before we start to see the first written references to holidays like Christmas and the birth of St. John the baptist in the very early sixth century.

Augustus and St John
From left to right: “Augustus of Prima Porta,” marble statue, 1st century AD; Da Vinci, “St. John the Baptist,” 1513-1516; Icon of St. John the Baptist. In artistic representation, “the pointing/ indicating gesture can be specifically used in the sense of showing a direction […] or presenting or accusing someone” (Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography, p. 741). Caesar Augustus points to way to future rulers of the Roman Empire, St. John the Baptist to the King of Kings.

To be honest, as a historian, I don’t exactly know  what to make of this confluence of events. Why did the birthday of Augustus become associated with St. John the Forerunner? Why did St. John suddenly get bound up with solstices and equinoxes? Who was the first person to make any of these decisions?

There’s simply not enough evidence left to tell us the exact who-what-where-when-why of these early Christian holidays. What we do know is that there was a point in time when certain feasts were not yet celebrated, and another point in time when they were, and all of these points in time were happening against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating Roman Empire. 

Because of this, there are people who see the liturgical calendar as little more than a “construct,” a rigid invention to evoke some mythologized or even idolatrous sense of a shared past.

But I see beauty—and creativity, and worship. I see people who saw through the veil of a crumbling regime the foretaste of eternity. I see people realizing maybe they’d been celebrating too long the birth of a worldly forerunner—whose earthly kingdom had shattered—and seeking to mark time in a new way, by remembering the precursor to the kingdom of heaven. I see people wanting to honor God not only in word and deed, but also in dates and times and seasons and memory and equinoxes.

There is nothing shameful about this. There’s nothing wrong with exploring new, creative ways to bring glory to God. There’s nothing idolatrous about giving God more rather than less. And there’s nothing shameful about longing for the light of Christ to increase in this dust-covered world.

On September 23rd, for all of these reasons and more, we celebrate the conception of St. John the Forerunner.   


Note 1: This was an idea expressed in a tract of unknown authorship entitled De Solstitiis et Aequinoctiis. It was falsely attributed to St. John Chrysostom for centuries, though it probably dates back only to the tenth century.

 

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