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
4 Kings 2:1, 7-13,
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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
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:
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
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
doors, 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:
Put two teaspoons of the dried herb in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes,
and drink thrice daily.
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.
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:
||Our help is
in the name of the Lord.
||Who made heaven
||The Lord be
||May He also
be with you.
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":
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,
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,
Praise to the Father, to the Son begotten,
And to the Spirit, equal power possessing,
One God Whose glory, through the lapse of ages,
||There was a
man sent from God.
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
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
Labii reatum, Sanc
us back to Ut, Ut, Ut, Ut!" (With apologies to Miss Andrews...). The words
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:
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
Johns, as we celebrate Christs. 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
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 mothers womb.
You will remember that, before he was born, at Marys arrival he leapt
in his mothers 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
Finally, he is born, he receives a name, and his fathers tongue is
loosed. Zachary is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lords
forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. What does Zacharys
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 Zacharys 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
Zacharys 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
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
cushion bush, asparagus fern and bay laurel, Marjoram
hydrangea, sea foam statice, straw flowers, babys breath, cattail,
statice, celosia, dock, goldenrod, heather, pussy willow, yarrow, purple
coneflower, roses, globe thistle