Sunday, June 22, 2008
Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

As June 24th approaches, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, similarly advances. Along with solely the sinless Blessed Virgin Mary and our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church remembers the birth of St. John the Baptist. Together, the Church only liturgically celebrates these three holy births.

June 23 is the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. From the propers of the Mass for June 23, the Introit occupies a place of importance, expressing comfort and hope:
Fear not, Zachary; thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John; and he shall be great before the Lord, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb; and many shall rejoice at his birth. V. (Ps. 20: 2) In Thy strength, O Lord, the king shall joy; and in Thy salvation he shall rejoice exceedingly. v. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Fear not, Zachary...
From a sermon given on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine proclaims, "When John was preaching the Lord's coming he was asked, 'Who are you?' And he replied: 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.' The voice is John, but the Lord 'in the beginning was the Word.' John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal."

Devotion to St. John the Baptist has been widespread for centuries. "A homily on the Ascension that same year (May 26, 1960) afforded Pope John XXIII the opportunity to assert that it may be piously believed that St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph were bodily assumed into heaven at the time of our Lord's ascension."

As we prepare for the Nativity of St. John, which used to be a holy day of obligation, we focus on the Scriptures and the Traditions of the Church. The Gradual Prayer from the Vigil Mass' propers is taken from John 1:6-7, "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came to bear witness to the light, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people".

As we seek to pray daily with the Church's liturgical prayers, we now turn to the exemplar figure of the last of the prophets of whom Jesus said, "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" (Matthew 11:11). An interesting fact is that our musical scale (do, re, mi) took its names from the tones of the Vesper Hymn for St. John.

I will be celebrating the great festival of the Nativity of St. John by having a traditional Bonfire, during which old, worn-out sacramentals are reverently burned. Describing this ancient custom, Fish Eaters writes:
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.

It is my hope that many of my readers will take part in similar celebrations on the night of June 23, as we begin to celebrate the birth of holy St. John. Christ Himself is truly the "burning and shining light" (John 5:35), which knows no darkness. And St. John the Baptist was his herald. Let us pray with joy on June 24, the Collect from his feastday: " O God, Who hast made this day honorable to us on account of the birth of blessed John, grant Thy people the grace of spiritual joys, and direct the minds of all the faithful in the way of everlasting salvation. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God... Forever and ever. Amen"

1 comment(s):

del_button June 23, 2008 at 8:57 AM
Anonymous said...

Excellent, Matthew! I've posted a link to you from my site. Enjoy your summer months of blogging :)

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