Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


St. John's Eve
& St. John's Day

by Valentin de Boulogne
 
   
 
 
Nota bene: today celebrates John's birthday; his death by beheading, or "decollation," will be commemorated on 29 August.

This Feast honors the great St. John, the greatest of all Prophets -- so great that Our Lord said of him in Matthew 11:11-15
Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John: And if you will receive it, he is Elias that is to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Typified by Elias (Elijah), described in 4 Kings 1:8 as " A hairy man with a girdle of leather about his loins," John baptized in the same place Elias was taken up into Heaven:

4 Kings 2:1, 7-13, 19-22
And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elias into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elias and Eliseus (Elisha) were going from Galgal...

And fifty men of the sons of the prophets followed them, and stood in sight at a distance: but they two stood by the Jordan. And Elias took his mantle and folded it together, and struck the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, and they both passed over on dry ground. And when they were gone over, Elias said to Eliseus: Ask what thou wilt have me to do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Eliseus said: I beseech thee that in me may be thy double spirit. And he answered: Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless if thou see me when I am taken from thee, thou shalt have what thou hast asked: but if thou see me not, thou shalt not have it. And as they went on, walking and talking together, behold a fiery chariot, and fiery horses parted them both asunder: and Elias went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Eliseus saw him, and cried: My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the driver thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own garments, and rent them in two pieces. And he took up the mantle of Elias, that fell from him: and going back, he stood upon the bank of the Jordan...

And the men of the city said to Eliseus: Behold the situation of this city is very good, as thou, my lord, seest: but the waters are very bad, and the ground barren. And he said: Bring me a new vessel, and put salt into it. And when they had brought it, He went out to the spring of the waters, and cast the salt into it, and said: Thus saith the Lord: I have healed these waters, and there shall be no more in them death or barrenness. And the waters were healed unto this day, according to the word of Eliseus, which he spoke.

John's coming was foretold --

Isaias 40:1-5
Be comforted, be comforted, my people, saith your God. Speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem, and call to her: for her evil is come to an end, her iniquity is forgiven: she hath received of the hand of the Lord double for all her sins. The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see, that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.

Malachias 4:4-6
Remember the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, the precepts, and judgments. Behold I will send you Elias the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers: lest I come, and strike the earth with anathema.

Matthew 3:1-3
And in those days cometh John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea. And saying: Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by Isaias the prophet, saying: A voice of one crying in the desert, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.

-- and his birth was surrounded by the miraculous: the angel Gabriel's visit to John's father, Zachary, to announce that he would have a son who will be called John, John's recongition of the Savior while still in his mother's womb, and the manner in which Zachary regained his speech and prophecied at John's circumcision:

Luke 1:59-79
And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary.

And his mother answering, said: Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.

The Naming of St. John the Baptist, by Fra Angelico, 1434-5 (detail) And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came upon all their neighbours; and all these things were noised abroad over all the hill country of Judea. And all they that had heard them laid them up in their heart, saying: What an one, think ye, shall this child be? For the hand of the Lord was with him. And Zachary his father was filled with the Holy Ghost; and he prophesied, saying:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people: And hath raised up an horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant: As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets, who are from the beginning: Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us: To perform mercy to our fathers, and to remember his holy testament, The oath, which he swore to Abraham our father, that he would grant to us, That being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve him without fear, In holiness and justice before him, all our days. And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways: To give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins: Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us: To enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.

It is interesting to note that this Feast is one of only three Feasts that commemorate birthdays, the other two being the birthday of Jesus on 25 December, and that of Our Lady on 8 September. And what do all three have in common? They were all three born without original sin! Our Lord and Lady were both, of course, conceived without sin, but St. John the Baptist, though not conceived in this way, was filled with grace in the womb of his mother, the aged and barren Elizabeth, and so was born without original sin. This is evident by his recognizing the Savior even in the womb, and by the Angel's words to his father, the priest Zachary (Zacharias) who went to the Temple to pray that his wife should conceive:

Luke 1:13-15
But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard: and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son. And thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness: and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb.

Luke 1:26, 28, 31, 36, 39-41, 56, 57
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth... And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women... Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus... And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren... And Mary rising up in those days, went into the hill country with haste into a city of Juda. And she entered into the house of Zachary and saluted Elizabeth. And it came to pass that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost... And Mary abode with her about three months; and she returned to her own house. Now Elizabeth's full time of being delivered was come, and she brought forth a son.

This Feast, then, follows the Feast of the Annunciation by 3 months and precedes the birth of Christ by six months. It is providential that the Feast of "the Forerunner," the greatest of all Prophets, should fall at Midsummer, around the Summer Solstice 1 when the days become shorter, because of his words in John 3:30, "He must increase, but I must decrease." It is the longest day of the year, and from here on out, the days grow shorter and shorter. Conversely, Our Lord, the "Radiant Dawn," was born at the Winter Solstice, when the days were becoming longer!

Nonetheless, how great is the light of St. John! The Epistle reading for today's Feast beautifully speaks of this greatest of Saints, this "chosen arrow" in the "quiver" of God:

Isaias 49:1-3, 5, 6, 7
Give ear, ye islands, and hearken, ye people from afar. The Lord hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother he hath been mindful of my name. And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword: in the shadow of his hand he hath protected me, and hath made me as a chosen arrow: in his quiver he hath hidden me. And he said to me: Thou art my servant Israel, for in thee will I glory. And now saith the Lord, that formed me from the womb to be his servant, that I may bring back Jacob unto him, and Israel will not be gathered together: and I am glorified in the eyes of the Lord, and my God is made my strength. Behold, I have given thee to be the light of the Gentiles, that thou mayst be my salvation even to the farthest part of the earth. Kings shall see, and princes shall rise up, and adore for the Lord's sake, because he is faithful, and for the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee.

 
Customs

On the Feast of St. John, it is customary to gather the perennial herb "St. John's Wort" (Hypericum perforatum), named for our Saint. It's long been seen as a means to keep evil away, and since medieval times, the herb has been hung over St. John's Wortdoors, windows and icons (its genus name -- hypericum -- means "above a picture") to keep witches and evil spirit away. It is also used medicinally, and was used thus by the Knights Hospitallers. To harvest, cut off the top third of the plant and hang in bundles to dry. To use it medicinally as a tonic or for the treatment of mild depression, sleep disorders, chronic tension headaches, menopausal disorders, bedwetting, and mild neuralgic and rheumatic pain, try one of these two methods:

Infusion:
Put two teaspoons of the dried herb in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes, and drink thrice daily.

Tincture:
Into a pint jar with a lid, put either 3 ounces of the dried flowers or enough of the fresh herb to fill the jar. Pour 100-proof vodka into the jar to fill, and shake the contents hard. Let steep for two weeks, shaking the jar once a day, then strain and pour into 1 oz dropper bottles (the liquid should be a bright red, the color of St. John's blood, the spilling of which is remembered on 29 August). Drink two droppers full three times a day (half the amount for children). This method is more "cost-effective" than the infusion method in that it makes better use of the quantity of the herb.

The infusion or tincture is also applied to the skin as an anti-bacterial agent and as an astringent. Pregnant women, those with high blood pressure, and those taking anti-coagulants or antidepressants should talk to their doctors before using. Possible side effects include photosensitivity (so avoid the sun when using), increase in blood pressure, gastrointestinal upset, and dermatitis in those who are sensitive to the herb.

In addition to gathering St. John's wort, it's also customary to gather flowers to make wreaths to wear and to hang in your home or, especially, on the front door. In some places, such as Poland, some of these wreaths are floated down the river in honor of Christ's Baptism by St. John in the Jordan. Make a wreath of flowers that dry well, and hang in your home all year to be replaced next St. John's Day. Alternatively, flowers can be tied together in bunches with beautiful ribbons and hanged upside-down to decorate your home all year. 2

The temporal focal point of the festivities, though, is the building of fires outdoors in which to burn worn out sacramentals and to serve as a symbol of the one Christ Himself called "a burning and shining light" (John 5:35). These fires used to be huge, communal bonfires, and this still occurs in parts of Europe, but smaller, "family-sized" fires will do, too. The fire is built at dusk, with this blessing from the Roman Ritual, and allowed to burn past midnight:

P: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
P: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.
Let us pray. Lord God, almighty Father, the light that never fails and the source of all light, sanctify + this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to Thee Who art light eternal; through Christ our Lord. All: Amen.

The fire is sprinkled with holy water;
after which the clergy and the people sing the "Ut queant laxis":

O for your spirit, holy John, to chasten
Lips sin-polluted, fettered tongues to loosen;
So by your children might your deeds of wonder
Meetly be chanted.

Lo! a swift herald, from the skies descending,
Bears to your father promise of your greatness;
How he shall name you, what your future story,
Duly revealing.

Scarcely believing message so transcendent,
Him for a season power of speech forsaketh,
Till, at your wondrous birth, again returneth,
Voice to the voiceless.

You, in your mother's womb all darkly cradled,
Knew your great Monarch, biding in His chamber,
Whence the two parents, through their offspring's merits,
Mysteries uttered.

Praise to the Father, to the Son begotten,
And to the Spirit, equal power possessing,
One God Whose glory, through the lapse of ages,
Ever resounding.
P: There was a man sent from God.
All Whose name was John.
Let us pray. God, Who by reason of the birth of blessed John have made this day praiseworthy, give Thy people the grace of spiritual joy, and keep the hearts of Thy faithful fixed on the way that leads to everlasting salvation; through Christ our Lord. All: Amen.

After the blessing, a decade of the Rosary is prayed while walking sunwise -- clockwise, not widdershins -- around the fire, the old Sacramentals are reverently burned, and then the party begins. In most places, brave souls leap over the flames of the bonfire -- an act which is given different meanings in different places, with most saying it is an act to bring blessings.

If you're in a farming family, it is customary to carry torches lit from this fire through your fields to bless them. Whether you're a farmer or not, tend the fire as late as you can go (at least until after midnight) and have fun. If you have a fireplace, light a fire in it with flames from the bonfire to bless your home. Note that it is customary, too, to save some of the ashes from this fire to mix with water to bless the sick.

As to foods, it's customary to eat strawberries (Our Lady is said to accompany children who pick strawberries on this day). In addition, in Sweden pickled herring, boiled potatoes, sour cream, crisp bread, beer and schnapps are enjoyed, while in Spain they eat figs and a savory pie made with tuna. In Ireland, "goody" is another traditional food -- white bread broken in pieces and boiled with milk, sugar, and spices in a great pot over the fire.

Another interesting thing about the Feast of St. John: the Breviary's hymn for this day, Ut queant laxis -- the hymn sung or recited during the blessing of the bonfire -- is the source of our names of musical notes -- Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. The hymn, attributed to Paulus Diaconus (Paul the Deacon, ca. A.D. 720-799), was noted by a monk to rise one note in the diatonic C-Scale with each verse. The syllables sung at each rise in pitch give us the names of our notes (the "Ut" was later changed to "Do" for easier pronunciation):

Ut queant laxis
Resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
Famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
Labii reatum, Sanc
Te Ioannes
 

..."which brings us back to Ut, Ut, Ut, Ut!" (With apologies to Miss Andrews...). The words mean:

So that these your servants may, with all their voice, resound your marvelous exploits, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John.

And the melody is as follows:

 
Reading

A Sermon by St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430)

The Church observes the birth of John as in some way sacred; and you will not find any other of the great men of old whose birth we celebrate officially. We celebrate John’s, as we celebrate Christ’s. This point cannot be passed over in silence, and if I may not perhaps be able to explain it in the way that such an important matter deserves, it is still worth thinking about it a little more deeply and fruitfully than usual.

John is born of an old woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. That John will be born is not believed, and his father is struck dumb; that Christ will be born is believed, and he is conceived by faith.

I have proposed some matters for inquiry, and listed in advance some things that need to be discussed. I have introduced these points even if we are not up to examining all the twists and turns of such a great mystery, either for lack of capacity or for lack of time. You will be taught much better by the one who speaks in you even when I am not here; the one about whom you think loving thoughts, the one whom you have taken into your hearts and whose temple you have become.

John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is somehow or other a boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb.

You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary’s arrival he leapt in his mother’s womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. These are divine matters, and exceed the measure of human frailty.

Finally, he is born, he receives a name, and his father’s tongue is loosed. Zachary is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lord’s forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. What does Zachary’s silence mean, but that prophecy was obscure and, before the proclamation of Christ, somehow concealed and shut up? It is released and opened up by his arrival, it becomes clear when the one who was being prophesied is about to come. The releasing of Zachary’s voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. If John were meant to proclaim himself, he would not be opening Zachary’s mouth. The tongue is released because a voice is being born – for when John was already heralding the Lord, he was asked, Who are you and he replied I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. John is the voice, but the Lord in the beginning was the Word. John is a voice for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning.

 
 
Note: This Feast is also one of the 4 English "Quarter Days," days which fall around the Equinoxes or Solstices and mark the beginnings of new natural seasons (i.e., Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall) and which were used in medieval times to mark "quarters" for legal purposes, such as settling debts. The other days like this are: Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation) on March 25, Michaelmas on September 29, and Christmas on December 25. Customs grew up around these days as they were important to people who lived off the land as most did in the "Age of Faith."
 

Footnotes:
1 In the Northern hemisphere (including historical Israel, the place of relevance with regard to these things), the Sun will rise a bit north of due East at the Summer Solstice. At the Winter Solstice, it will rise South of due East. At the Spring Equinox and Autumn Equinox, it will rise due East, making the days the same length. In this diagram, the ecliptic (the sun's path) is shaded so you can visualize:

 

2 For drying, the following are said to be good: 

Foliage: magnolia, oak, cushion bush, asparagus fern and bay laurel, Marjoram
Flowers: lavender, larkspur, hydrangea, sea foam statice, straw flowers, baby’s breath, cattail, statice, celosia, dock, goldenrod, heather, pussy willow, yarrow, purple coneflower, roses, globe thistle

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