Thursday, 24 June 2021

A Midsummer Night’s Feast: The Birth of John the Baptist

Happy Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. In the East, he is known as the Honourable and Glorious Prophet John, Forerunner and Baptist of Christ.

From Catholic Stand

By Masha Goepel

There was a man sent from God
whose name was John. This man
came to bear witness of the Light,
to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.
— Gradual from the Vigil of St. John the Baptist

In the Medieval Church, the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist was a second, summertime Christmas. St. John is, in fact, the only saint apart from Christ and the Blessed Mother to have a nativity feast on the calendar. His nativity is exactly six months apart from Christ’s, and just as the birth of Jesus coincides with the winter solstice, His cousin’s nativity marks the summer solstice – the time at which the long days begin to grow shorter. After the Nativity of the Baptist, we start to anticipate the Light of the world in new and deeper ways.

Medieval Catholics considered the Nativity of St. John one of the greatest feasts in the year. They celebrated it enthusiastically with bonfires, processions, and of course, long Vigil Masses full of prayers for a bountiful summer.

The Baptist’s birth and death bookend the summer season. Brief, bright, and full of tasks that must be done before winter comes again. Like all agrarian people, John the Baptist spends his life preparing for the next season. Unlike the preparations at my own little homestead though, St. John is preparing for the Season of Salvation – “to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.”

A Holy Birth

But why does St. John have a nativity feast at all? Mary – Conceived Immaculately, the Mother of God, has so many feast days. We celebrate her Conception, Annunciation, Assumption, Motherhood, and so many little devotions to her that it seems only natural to also celebrate her Nativity. Jesus is God, born among us; but why is St. John’s birth cause for such celebration?

Tradition tells us that St. John’s birth is worthy of a feast because – like Jesus and Mary – John was born without original sin. Of course, he wasn’t conceived without original sin, but when the unborn John leapt in his mother’s womb at the greeting of the Mother of God, His wholehearted response to the unborn Christ cleansed him of original sin and prepared him for the role of Prophet and Forerunner.

As Jesus says to His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). With such praise as this from Our Lord it is only right to say:

Lord, You have given this day honor
by the birth of the blessed John; grant to Your
people the grace of spiritual joys and guide the
souls of all the faithful in the way
of eternal salvation.

Learning to Celebrate Again

Most of us didn’t spend our childhoods celebrating St. John’s Nativity. Even those of us raised in Catholic homes seem to have missed out on the more traditional feasts. But there are more than a millennia of traditions surrounding St. John’s Day, and we can gather them up to make new celebrations for ourselves and our families.

Most of the traditional celebrations involve fire and water. Fire, because St. John the Baptist is “a burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35) and “he is Elijah, the one who is to come”(Matthew 11:14); and Elijah was carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot; and water because St. John the Baptist baptized with water.

Fire

Midsummer bonfires were famous throughout the medieval period in large part because of the bonfires that were an essential aspect of St. John’s Eve. In Poland, revelers leapt over the St. John’s bonfire and then sprinkled the ashes of the holy fire on their fields to ensure the Baptist’s blessing on the crops. On St. John’s Eve, summer herbs and wildflowers were burned on the bonfires – filling the air with fragrant smoke. Two favorite herbs for the bonfire were St. John’s Plant (mugwort) and St. John’s Wort.

At my house, we still have bonfires on St. John’s Eve, but for families in less rural locations, sometimes a more low-key celebration is necessary. Pick a vase of wildflowers, bake a lavender-honey cake or an herbal dream cake, light some candles, and have a quieter St. John’s Eve celebration on your porch or patio.

Water

John the Baptist’s Nativity feast was also famous in many parts of Europe for the floral wreaths that young girls made and sent out onto rivers, streams, lakes, and ponds. Often, the wreaths were lit with candles as well. These wreaths celebrate the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by St. John. Alternately, a wreath of flowers could also be made to hang in the house – as herbs and flowers blessed on the feast of St. John are supposed to protect everyone in the home from harm.

We don’t float flower crowns down the stream on St. John’s Day, but I do like to bring out my Blessed Epiphany water and go around sprinkling the house, gardens, and animals. Especially the honeybees. John the Baptist is one of the patrons of honeybees. Having eaten wild honey in the desert, the Baptist has a special attachment to the industrious little makers of honey and wax. On his feast day, we like to give our bees an extra blessing and invite them to share the day with us.

Of course, if you don’t have a stream, or bees, you can still bring a bit of holy water into your Feast day! Bless the gardens and flowers (even if it’s just a little aloe plant on your windowsill). Mix up some summertime water with fresh berries, cucumbers, and mint. Strawberries are extra special on St. John’s Day – traditions say that the Blessed Mother picks strawberries with us when we pick on this day!

Reclaimed Traditions

However you chose to honor the Baptist on his birthday, do so with enthusiasm. John the Baptist was a man who didn’t do anything by halves. From conception to death, he flung himself fully into his vocation – living entirely for His Savior and guiding the souls of “all the faithful in the way of eternal salvation.”

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