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.
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,
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.
was foretold --
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
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.
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 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.
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 over 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
In addition to gathering St. John's wort, it's also customary
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:
||Our help is in
the name of the Lord.
||Who made heaven
||The Lord be with
||May He also be
|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,
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.
||Whose name was
|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.
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
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):
Labii reatum, Sanc
us back to Ut, Ut, Ut, Ut!" (With apologies to Miss Andrews...). The
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)
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
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."
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:
cushion bush, asparagus fern and bay laurel, Marjoram
larkspur, hydrangea, sea foam statice, straw flowers, baby’s breath,
cattail, statice, celosia, dock, goldenrod, heather, pussy willow,
yarrow, purple coneflower, roses, globe thistle