Mid-Summer Feasting: The Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist
Merry Christmas! I know it’s not December, but June 24, Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, is often referred to as “Summer Christmas” because it is exactly six months from Christmas.
The cult of St. John the Baptist, the Precursor of Christ is very ancient, which makes this such a multi-faceted feast both in the liturgy and traditions connected to the feast. To touch on a few highlights:
A Birthday Celebration
The only other births that are celebrated in the Church's Liturgical Calendar are the birth of Jesus on Christmas, and the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8th. Jesus is the Son of God, so He is always without sin. Mary was immaculately conceived, having no original sin and staying sinless throughout her life. Church tradition states that while in St. Elizabeth's womb, upon hearing Mary's voice, John the Baptist's soul was cleansed of original sin as he leapt for joy. The Church celebrates St. John’s birth and death, but usually saints' feast days are celebrating the day of their death, marking their birthday into heaven -- the first day of their eternal reward.
Just Like Family
St. John played a major role in our salvation history, and the Church encourages us “to realize the importance and significance of the feasts of those Saints who have had a particular mission in the history of Salvation, or a singular relationship with Christ such as St. John the Baptist (24 June)...” (Dir. Pop Piety, #229)
He “straddles the both Old and New Testaments” (Dir. Pop. Piety, #224) but prominently featured in the Gospels. Except for Jesus, there is no other person that we get to know so intimately—from conception to death, and even what he wore and ate. He is mentioned centuries before his birth in several Old Testament prophecies, particularly Isaiah’s “A voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Is 40:3) but most prominently featured in the Gospels. At the recent feast of the Visitation we met John’s parents, and recognized him in St. Elizabeth’s womb. This Solemnity, June 24th, celebrates the nativity of the (second) cousin of Jesus. The Gospels do not describe his childhood, but we meet him later preaching repentance and baptizing in the Jordan, and baptizes his own cousin, Jesus, to begin His ministry. The description of John evokes a wild image of a man wearing a “garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matt 3:4). We see a man who is not afraid to be outspoken, who never minces words to please others (“You brood of vipers!). He created enemies, including the wife of Herod. He eventually was imprisoned and beheaded because he upheld the truth.
No other saint in the New Testament is described so richly. John the Baptist becomes like a member of the family because we witness very personal snapshots of his life.
Light and Water
This feast brings to the forefront imagery of light and water. The opening of the Gospel of John describes the Baptist’s role: “He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (John 1:7-8). Later John the Baptist explains that he is the friend of the bridegroom, rejoicing at the sound of bridegroom’s voice, “He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).
As noted before, the Precursor's birth marks the halfway point before Christmas. In the Northern Hemisphere, this feast marks midsummer, close to the historical Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. After the solstice, the days grow shorter (the light decreases) until we reach the winter solstice, close to Christmas, where we have the shortest day of the year, and Christ comes upon the world. After Christ’s birth, the light increases. Granted, Midsummer Eve festivities were held long before Christ was born, but the Church wisely baptized this festival, nourished it and now calls it Her own.
Light (as in sun and fire) and water are the two imageries that keep repeating for this feast (and saint). All over Europe bonfires were traditional for St. John's Eve. “The Church blesses such fires, praying God that the faithful may overcome the darkness of the world and reach the "indefectible light" of God.” (Dir. Pop. Piety, #225) Here we can see the merging of popular piety with the liturgy with the official blessing from the Roman Ritual for the bonfire.
And as St. John THE BAPTIST baptized with water, including Our Lord, water plays a significant role. In reading about different customs throughout the world my favorite has to be Mexico, where they bathe and swim and throw water "baptizing" each other.
Another unique aspect of this feast is that it touches on both the temporal and sanctoral cycles. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the Liturgical Year: "The celebration throughout the year of the mysteries of the Lord's birth, life, death, and Resurrection in such a way that the entire year becomes a 'year of the Lord's grace.' Thus the cycle of the liturgical year and the great feasts constitute the basic rhythm of the Christian's life of prayer, with its focal point at Easter." (#1168)
Within this Church year are two cycles. The more important cycle is the Temporal cycle (from the Latin tempus which means time or season). The life of Christ is relived in liturgical time, in both real time and Church's memory. Throughout the year the Paschal Mystery (Christ's work of redemption through His birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection and ascension) is relived, and broken down into the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Ordinary Time. Sundays are the usual means of by which this cycle unfolds.
At the same time with the temporal cycle, the Sanctoral cycle (from the Latin sanctus, which means saint) progresses. The Church honors Mary, Mother of God and the memorials of martyrs and other saints are kept by the Church. The main focus should be around the feasts of the Paschal mystery. Saints are more of the "supporting cast." Their lives illustrate that through time, with the different difficulties presented during each era, they could live out their faith. Their lives are witnesses to Christ and examples for all faithful to follow. But, like Mary, their lives point back to the saving mysteries of Christ.
John the Baptist fits into both of these cycles. We honor him as a saint on both of his feasts, June 24 and August 29, but since St. John’s life is intertwined with Christ's Redemption, his nativity fits into the temporal cycle.
All Around the Liturgical Year
Again, St. John’s role is so integral to the Paschal mystery that we find him throughout all the Liturgical seasons and calendar. He prepares the way of the Lord in both the seasons of Advent and Lent. John baptizing his Cousin on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord ends the Christmas season. His life and work points to the Light of the World who comes at Christmas, Christ Our Paschal Light at Easter, and also the importance of our baptism, particularly during the Easter season. In the summer during Ordinary Time we celebrate his birth and death, and sprinkled throughout the year are readings from the Gospels that emphasize his life and role in salvation.
In short, St. John the Baptist is one of our main companions and guides during our journey throughout the Liturgical Year.
ABCs of Gregorian Chant
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this feast would be an excellent jumping point to learn some Gregorian Chant. After all, it's our duty to preserve (and USE) Gregorian Chant and Polyphony. The Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours includes the Gregorian chant Ut Queant Laxis. This is the original "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol..." on our musical scale. See the main page for this feast for further references.
St. John the Baptist was greater than a prophet in the words of Jesus. The Gospels really help us to know the cousin of Jesus well, and the Church holds him as one of our companions throughout the Liturgical Year. May your midsummer feast be blessed by getting to know this Forerunner of Christ even more!
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Posted by: -
Jun. 25, 2014 3:03 PM ET USA
Wonderful feast!! Attending mass is a great way to commemorate this important day!!! We need to celebrate these days as much as possible!! Next up is September 8th - Mary's birthday.
Posted by: JARay -
Jun. 24, 2014 5:44 PM ET USA
Although scripture does not actually say it, we can deduce that Our Lady was present at the birth of John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel told Our Lady that her cousin, St. Elizabeth was six months pregnant when he came and told Our Lady that she was the one chosen to be the mother of Jesus. Mary immediately went to visit her cousin and stayed with her for three months so she would have been present at the birth of John. Elizabeth too knew that Mary was pregnant with "her Lord" in her greeting.