Today we celebrate the birthday of Saint John the Baptist!
We’ve looked at this holy day in the Church Calendar before; here you will find three brief takes on the significance of this feast: Happy Birthday, John the Baptist! You can also read a little about his life and of some lectionary history for his feast day here.
This year, I’d like to look at the Collect for this Day. Here it is in the 1662 Prayer Book:
ALMIGHTY God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour, by preaching of repentance; Make
us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching, and after his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For the most part, this is the same as what we’ve got in the 2019 Prayer Book today. The first half is virtually identical; only the word doctrine is now swapped out for teaching, which means the same thing, though the connotations have changed slightly. Today the word doctrine more often is used to refer to a specific area or type of teaching, rather than biblical-theological teaching as a whole. So that’s a subtle language update that helps preserve the original meaning of this prayer.
It’s also important to note that doctrine/teaching is paired with a holy life. An unvirtuous teacher is not a good Christian example, neither is a virtuous man with sloppy theology.
The “purpose” section of the Collect, in the second half, is a bit more rearranged, however. We pray that we may follow John’s doctrine and example so that…
that we may truly repent (2019)
that we may truly repent according to his preaching (1662)
Both versions start with this, and rightly so! The call to repentance was the most obvious and prolific subject of his preaching that we find in the Gospels, most especially in Luke 3. The phrase “according to his preaching” is not in our text of the prayer, probably dropped for its redundancy with the subject of his doctrine/teaching in the previous phrase.
boldly rebuke vice (both)
This is the second purpose for our following his teaching and life. This, too, was a major part of his recorded preaching, as the identification of vice and sin is rather necessary for a genuine call to repentance. The difference is that the modern prayer puts this second while the 1662 prayer puts this in the middle of the list.
patiently suffer for the sake of truth (2019)
patiently suffer for the truth’s sake (1662)
Third in the modern prayer and last in the old, suffering for the cause of God’s truth is part of St. John the Baptist’s example. Being last in the 1662 form of the prayer, this has a place of subtle emphasis; it’s the last thing we hear, a sobering “last word on the matter”. John was a martyr, after all, and many, many others would soon follow him.
and proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord (2019)
Absent from the traditional collect is the theme of proclaiming the advent of Jesus. Some might read this to be pretentious: John the Baptist was a unique herald, The Forerunner, specially imbued by the Holy Spirit to “prepare the way of the Lord” and point people to his relative, Jesus, when his ministry began. We are not called or qualified to anything on par with that! But we do proclaim the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord, even though we don’t know the day or the hour of his return, nor even have a promise that he will return within our lifetimes. The return of Christ is a reality that permeates the New Testament epistles, and has also characterized the liturgy (particularly that of Holy Communion) ever since as we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. So we follow in John’s footsteps in this ministry of proclamation, albeit on a different level of the scale.