The Feasts of St. John the Baptist
The Liturgical Year by Dom Gueranger, Vols. XII and XIV
THE VIGIL OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST
'THERE was in the days of Herod the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia, and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth. And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame. And they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were well advanced in years. And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord; and all the multitude of the people was praying without at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an Angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him was troubled, and fear fell upon him; 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. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.' [St. Luke i 5-17]
though springing from Jesse's root, yet was He to be the desired of the Gentiles; This page which the Church reads to us today is precious in the annals of the human race, for here begins the Gospel itself, here we have the first word of the good tidings of salvation. Man had not been kept in total ignorance of Heaven's plans for the rescue of our fallen race and the gift of a Redeemer, but weary and long had been this period of expectation, since the day when first the sentence pronounced against the accursed serpent pointed out to Adam and Eve a future wherein man should be healed by the Son of the woman, and God also by Him should be avenged. Age upon age rolled on, and the promise, still unaccomplished, gradually assumed certain developments. Each generation saw the Lord, by means of the prophets, adding some new feature to the characteristics of this Brother of our race; in Himself so great that the Most High would call Him 'My Son'; [Ps. ii 7] so impassioned for justice that He would shed the last drop of His Blood to ransom earth's whole debt. [Isa. liii 7] A Lamb in His immolation, He would rule the earth by his gentleness; [Ibid. xvi 1][Ibid. xi 10] more magnificent than Solomon, [Ps. xliv] He would graciously hearken to the love of these poor ransomed souls: taking the advance of their longing desires, He is fain to announce Himself as the Spouse descending from the everlasting hills. [Osee ii 19; Gen. xlix 26] The Lamb laden with the crimes of the world, the Spouse awaited by the bride----such was to be this Son of Man, Son likewise of God, the Christ, the Messias promised unto earth. But when will He come, this desired of nations? Who will point out unto earth her Saviour? Who will lead the bride to the Bridegroom?
'Enough of promises,' cries out the devout St. Bernard, together with all the fathers, speaking in the name of the Church of the expectation, and commenting the first verse of the Canticle of Canticles; 'enough of figures and of shadows, enough of others' parleying! I understand no more of Moses; no voice have the prophets for me; the Law which they bear has failed to restore life to my dead. Mankind, gone forth in tears from Eden, had stood with wistful gaze fixed on futurity. Jacob, when dying, hailed from afar this beloved Son Whose strength would be that of the lion, whose heavenly charms, still more enhanced by the blood of the grape, rapt Him in inspired contemplation on his deathbed. [Ibid. xlix 9-12, 18] In the name of the Gentile world, Job, seated on the dunghill whereon his flesh was falling to pieces, gave response to ruin in an act of sublime hope in his Redeemer and his God. [Job xix 25-27] Breathlessly panting under the pressure of his woe and the fever of his longing desires, mankind beheld century roll upon century, while consuming death continued its ravages, while his craving for the expected God waxed hotter within his breast. Thus, from generation to generation, what a redoubling of imploring prayer, what a growing impatience of entreaty! Oh! that thou wouldst rend the heavens and wouldst come down! [Isa. lxiv 1][4 Kings iv 31] What have I to do with the stammerings of their profane mouths, [Exod. iv 10; Isa. vi 5] I to whom the Word hath announced Himself? Aaron's perfumes may not compare with the oil of gladness poured out by the Father on Him Whom I await. [Ps. xliv 8] No more deputies, no more servants for me: after so many messages, let Him come at last, let Him come Himself!'
Prostrate, in the person of the worthiest of her sons, upon the heights of Carmel, the Church of the expectation will not raise herself up till appears in the heavens the proximate sign of salvation's rain-cloud. [3 Kings xviii 42-46] Vainly, even seven times, shall it be answered her that as yet naught can be descried arising seawards; still prolonging her prayer and her tears, her lips parched by the ceaseless drought, and cleaving to the dust, she will yet linger on, awaiting the appearance of that fertilizing cloud, the light cloud that beareth her God under human features. Then, forgetting her long fasts and weary expectant years, she will rise upon her feet, in all the vigour and beauty of her early youth; filled with the gladness the Angel announceth to her, in the joy of that new Elias, whose birthday this Vigil promises on the morrow, she will follow him, the predestined Precursor running, more truly than did the ancient Elias, [3 Kings xviii 44-46] before the chariot of Israel's king.
THE NATIVITY OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST
THE Voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord; behold thy God! [Isa. xl 3, 9] In this world grown now so cold, who can understand earth's transports at hearing these glad tidings so long expected? The promised God was not yet manifested; but already had the heavens bowed down [Ps. xvii 10] to make way for His passage. No longer was He 'the One Who is to come,' He for Whom our fathers, the illustrious Saints of the prophetic age, ceaselessly called in their indomitable hope. Still hidden, indeed, but already in our midst, He was resting beneath that virginal cloud, compared with which the heavenly purity of Thrones and Cherubim waxes dim; yea, the united fires of burning Seraphim grow faint in presence of the single love wherewith she alone encompasses Him in her human heart, she that lowly daughter of Adam whom He had chosen for his Mother. Our accursed earth, become in a moment more blessed than Heaven that had so long been closed against the prayers of men, only waited for the revelation of the august mystery. The hour had come for earth to join her canticles to that eternal and Divine praise which henceforth was ever rising from her depths, and which, being itself no other than the Word Himself, would praise God condignly. But beneath the veil of humility where His Divinity, even after as well as before His birth, must still continue to hide itself from men, who may discover the Emmanuel? Who, having recognized Him in His merciful abasements, may succeed in making Him accepted by a world lost in pride? Who may cry, pointing out the carpenter's Son [St. Matt. xiii 55] in the midst of the crowd: 'Behold Him Whom your fathers have so wistfully awaited'?
For such is the order decreed from on high, in the manifestation of the Messias. Conformably to the
ways of men, the God-Man would not intrude Himself into public life; He would await, for the inauguration of His Divine ministry, some man who, having preceded Him in a similar career, would be hereby sufficiently accredited to introduce Him to the people.
Sublime part for a creature to play, to stand guarantee for his God, witness for the Word! The exalted dignity of him who was to fill such a position had been notified, as had that of the Messias, long before his birth. In the solemn liturgy of the age of types, the Levite choir, reminding the Most High of the meekness of David and of the promise made to him of a glorious heir, hailed from afar the mysterious lamp prepared by God for his Christ. [Ps. cxxxi 17] Not that, to give light to His steps, Christ should stand in need of external help:
VIEW AN IMAGE OF THE HOLY TRINITY
He, the Splendour of the Father, had only to appear in these dark regions to fill them with the effulgence of the very heavens; but so many false glimmerings had deceived mankind, during the night of these ages of expectation, that, had the true Light arisen suddenly, it would not have been understood, or would have but blinded eyes now become well-nigh powerless, by reason of protracted darkness, to endure its brilliancy. Eternal Wisdom therefore decreed that, just as the rising sun is announced by the morning star and prepares his coming by the gently tempered brilliance of dawn, so Christ, Who is Light, should be preceded here below by a star, His precursor; and His approach should be signalized by the luminous rays which He Himself, though still invisible, would shed around this faithful herald of His coming. When, in bygone days, the Most High vouchsafed to light up the distant future before the eyes of His prophets, the radiant flash, which for an instant shot across the heavens of the old covenant, melted away in the deep night, and did not usher in the longed-for dawn. The morning star of which the psalmist sings shall never know defeat: declaring to night that all is now over with her, only in the triumphant splendour of the Sun of justice will his own light be dimmed. Even as dawn melts into day, so will he confound with Light Uncreated his own radiance; being of himself, like every creature, nothingness and darkness, he will so reflect the brilliancy of the Messias shining immediately upon him, that many will mistake him even for the very Christ. [St. Luke iii 15]
The mysterious conformity of Christ and His Precursor, the incomparable proximity which unites one to the other, are many times referred to in the sacred Scriptures. If Christ is the Word eternally uttered by the Father, John is to be the Voice bearing this Divine utterance whithersoever it is to reach. Isaias already hears the desert echoing with these accents, till now unknown; and the prince of prophets expresses the joy with all the enthusiasm of a soul already beholding itself in the very presence of its Lord and God. [Isa. xl] The Christ is the Angel of the Covenant; but in the same text wherein the Holy Ghost gives Him this title, for us so full of hope, there appears likewise, bearing the same name of Angel, the inseparable messenger, the faithful ambassador, to whom the earth is indebted for her knowledge of the Spouse: 'Behold I send My Angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face. And presently the Lord Whom ye seek, and the Angel of the testament whom you desire, shall come to His Temple; behold he cometh, saith the Lord of hosts.' [Mal, iii 1] And putting an end to the prophetic ministry, of which he is the last representative, Malachias terminates his own oracles by the words which we have heard Gabriel addressing to Zachary, when he makes known to him the approaching birth of the Precursor. [Ibid. iv 5. 6]
The presence of Gabriel, on this occasion, of itself shows what intimacy with the Son of God this child then promised shall enjoy; for the same prince of the heavenly hosts came again, soon afterwards, to announce the Emmanuel. Countless faithful messengers stand round the throne of the Holy Trinity; and the choice of these august ambassadors usually varies according to the dignity of the instructions to be transmitted to earth by the Most High. Nevertheless, it was fitting that the same Archangel charged with concluding the sacred nuptials of the Word with the human nature should likewise prelude this great mission by preparing the coming of him whom the eternal decrees had designated as the friend of the Bridegroom. [St. John iii 29] Six months later, when sent to Mary, he strengthens his Divine message by revealing to her the prodigy which had by then already given a son to the sterile Elizabeth; this being the first step of the Almighty towards a still greater marvel. John is not yet born; but without longer delay his career is begun: he is employed to attest the truth of the Angel's promises. How ineffable this guarantee of a child hidden in his mother's womb, but already brought forward as God's witness in that sublime negotiation which at that moment is holding Heaven and earth in suspense! Enlightened from on high, Mary receives the testimony and hesitates no longer. 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord,' she says to the Archangel, 'be it done unto me according to thy word.' [St. Luke i 36-38]
Gabriel has retired, bearing away with him the Divine secret which he has not been commissioned to reveal to the rest of the world. Neither will the most prudent Virgin herself tell it; even Joseph, her virginal spouse, is to receive no communication of the mystery from her lips. But the woeful sterility, beneath which earth has been so long groaning, is not to be followed by an ignorance more sorrow-stricken still, now that it has yielded its fruit. [Ps. lxxxiv 13] There is one from whom Emmanuel will have no secret nor reserve; it were fitting to reveal the marvel to him. Scarcely has the Spouse taken possession of the spotless sanctuary wherein the first nine months of his abiding amongst men must run their course, scarcely has the Word been made Flesh, than our Lady, inwardly taught what is her Son's desire, rising, makes all haste to speed into the hill-country of J udea. [St. Luke i 39] The voice of my Beloved! Behold He cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. [Cant. ii 8] His first visit is to the 'friend of the Brideroom,' the first outpouring of His graces is to John. A distinct feast will allow us to honour in a special manner the day on which the Divine Child, sanctifying His Precursor, reveals Himself to John by the voice of Mary; the day on which our Lady, manifested by John leaping within the womb of his mother, proclaims at last the wondrous things operated within her by the Almighty according to the merciful promise which He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever. [St. Luke i 55]
But the time has come when the good tidings are to spread through all the adjacent country, until at length they reach the whole world. John is about to be born, and, whilst still himself unable to speak, he is to loose his father's tongue. He is to put an end to that dumbness with which the aged priest, a type of the old law had been struck by the Angel; and Zachary, himself filled with the Holy Ghost, is about to publish in a new canticle the blessed visit of the Lord God of Israel. [Ibid. i 68]
The chants of holy Church in honour of the Precursor's nativity have begun; and already everything about the Feast is telling us that it is one of the solemnities dearest to the heart of the bride. But what would it be if, going back to former days, we were able to take our share in the olden manifestations of Catholic instinct on this day! In those grand ages wherein popular piety followed with docile step the inspiration of the Church, such demonstrations suggested by a common faith, on the recurrence of each loved anniversary, kept alive in every breast the understanding of the Divine work and its mystic harmonies thus gorgeously displayed in the cycle. Nowadays, when the liturgical spirit has fallen to a lower standard in the minds of the multitude, the Catholic verve, which used to urge on the mass of the people, is no longer felt in the same marked way. Left to itself, and hence without unity of view, popular devotion often lacks proportion; nevertheless, these regrettable inconsistencies cannot impair the spirit of piety ever inherent in holy Church; she is ever guided aright by the spirit of prayer that is within her; she ever holds the sure hand of her unerring authority on all pious demonstrations of a non-liturgical character, as well as on the diminutions of the former solemnity of her own sacred rites: hence she is ever on the watch to prevent her maternal condescension becoming a pretext for opening the way to error. We are far, however, from the days when two rival armies, meeting face to face on St John's eve, would put off the battle till the day after the feast. [The Battle of Fontenay (Saturday, June 25, 841): Nithardi histor. I, ii] In England, though no longer kept as a day of obligation, the feast of St. John is still marked in the calendar as a double of the first class with an octave; and gives place to no other, except the festival of Corpus Christi; it is, moreover, a day of devotion, and continues to attract the attention of the faithful as one of the more important feasts of the year.
Another festival is yet to come, at the end of August, calling for our renewed homage to the son of Zachary and Elizabeth, namely the feast of his glorious Martyrdom. But, venerable as it is, according to the Church's expression, [Collect of the day] its splendour is not to be compared with that of this present festival. The reason is, because this day relates less to John himself, than to Jesus Whom he is announcing; whereas the feast of the Decollation, though more personal to our Saint, has not in the Divine plan the same importance which his birth had, inasmuch as it preludes that of the Son of God.
There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist, are the words to be spoken by the Man-God of His Precursor; [St. Matt. xi 11] and already has Gabriel, when announcing both of them, declared the same thing to each, that he shall be great. [St. Luke i 15, 32] But the greatness of Jesus is that He shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the greatness of John is that he shall go before Him. [Ibid.] The name of John, brought down from Heaven like that of his Master, proclaims the grace which Jesus, by saving mankind, is to bring to the world.[Ibid. i 13, 31] Jesus, Who cometh from above in person, is above all; it is He and He alone whom all mankind is expecting. John, who is of earth, on the contrary hath nothing but what he hath received; but he hath received to be the' friend of the Bridegroom,' [St. John iiii 29, 30] His usher; so that the Bridegroom cometh not to the bride but by him. [Ibid. i 7] ...
The solemnity of June 24, therefore, throws a double light on the early days of Christianity. There never were, even then, days evil enough for the Church to belie the prediction of the Angel, that many should rejoice in the birth of John; [St. Luke i 14] his word, his example, his intercession, brought joy as well as courage to the Martyrs. After the triumph won by the Son of God over paganism when to the testimony of blood succeeded that of confession by works and praise, John maintained his part as Precursor of Christ in souls. Guide of monks, he conducted them far from the world, and fortified them in the combats of the desert; friend of the Bridegroom, he continues to form the bride, by preparing unto the Lord a perfect people. [Ibid. i 17]
In the divers states and degrees of the Christian life, his needful and beneficent influence makes itself felt. At the beginning of the fourth Gospel, in the most dogmatic passage of the New Testament, not by mere accident is John brought forward, even as heretofore at Jordan, as one closely united with the operations of the adorable Trinity, in the universal economy of the Divine Incarnation: 'There was a man sent from God whose name was John,' saith the Holy Ghost; 'he came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, THAT ALL MIGHT BELIEVE THROUGH HIM.' [St. John i 6, 7] 'Precursor at his birth, Precursor at his death, St. John still continues,' says St Ambrose, 'to go before the Lord.' More perhaps than we are aware of, his mysterious action may be telling on our present life. When we begin to believe in Christ, virtue comes forth, as it were, from St. John, drawing us after him: he inclines the steps of the soul towards faith; he rectifies the crooked ways of life, making straight the road of our earthly pilgrimage, lest we stray into the rugged wilds of error; he contrives that all our valleys be filled with the fruits of virtue, and that every elevation be brought low before the Lord. [Ambr. in Luc. i 38]
But if the Precursor maintains his part in each progressive movement of faith which brings souls nearer to Christ, he intervenes still more markedly in each Baptism conferred, whereby the bride gains increase. The baptistery is especially consecrated to him. It is true, the baptism which he gave to the crowds pressing day by day on Jordan's banks had never power such as Christian Baptism possesses; but when he plunged the Man-God beneath the waters, they were endowed with a virtue of fecundity emanating directly from Christ, whereby they would be empowered until the end of time to complete, by the accession of new members, the body of holy Church united to Christ.
The faith of our fathers never ignored the great benefits for which both individuals and nations are indebted to St. John. So many neophytes received his name in Baptism, so efficacious was the aid afforded by him in conducting his clients to sanctity, that there is not a day in the calendar on which there may not be honoured the heavenly birthday of one or other so named. Amongst nations, the Lombards formerly claimed St. John as patron, and French Canada does the same today. But whether in East or West, who could count the countries, towns, religious families, abbeys and churches placed under his powerful patronage: from the temple which, under Theodosius, replaced that of the ancient Serapis in Alexandria with its famous mysteries, to the sanctuary raised upon the ruins of the altar of Apollo on the summit of Monte Cassino by St Benedict; from the fifteen churches which Byzantium, the new Rome, consecrated within her walls in honour of the Precursor, to the august basilica of Lateran, well worthy of its epithet the golden basilica, which in the Capital of Christendom remains for ever the mother and mistress of all churches, not only of the city, but of the whole world! Dedicated at first to our Saviour, this latter basilica added at an early date another title, which seems inseparable from this sacred name, that of the friend of the Bridegroom. St. John the Evangelist, also a friend of Jesus, whose death according to one tradition occurred on the twenty-fourth day of June, has likewise had his name added to the other two borne by this basilica; but it is none the less certain that common practice is in keeping with ancient documents, in referring more especially to the Precursor the title of St. John Lateran, whereby the patriarchal basilica of the Roman Pontiffs is now always designated.
'Fitting it was,' says St. Peter Damian, 'that the authority of the bride should subscribe to the judgement of the Bridegroom, and that this latter should see His greatest friend raised in glory where she is enthroned as queen. A remarkable choice is this, to be sure, whereby John is given the primacy in the very city that is consecrated by the glorious death of the two lights of the world. Peter from his cross, Paul beneath the blade, both behold the first place held by another; Rome is clad in the purple of innumerable Martyrs, and yet all her honours go straight to the blessed Precursor. Everywhere John is the greatest!' [Petro Dam. Sermo 23. This discourse is frequently attributed to St. Bernard, or to Nicholas of Clairvaux; but this is proved to be false by a passage of the same discourse, in which the author declares that in his time the Church honoured no birthdays but those of our Lord and of St. John; now it is certain that in St. Bernard's time, as he himself attests, the Nativity of our Lady was kept.]
On this day, therefore, let us too imitate the Church; let us avoid that forgetfulness which bespeaks ingratitude; let us hail, with thanksgiving and heartfelt gladness, the arrival of him who promises our Saviour to us. Already Christmas is announced. On the Lateran Piazza (or Square) the faithful Roman people will keep vigil tonight, awaiting the hour which will allow the eve's strict fast and abstinence to be broken, when they may give themselves up to innocent enjoyment, the prelude of those rejoicings wherewith, six months hence, they will be greeting the Emmanuel.
St. John's vigil is no longer of precept. Formerly, however, not one day's fasting only, but an entire Lent was observed at the approach of the Nativity of the Precursor, resembling in its length and severity that of the Advent of our Lord. [See Councils, Capitularies, Penitential Canons.] The more severe had been the holy exactions of the preparation, the more prized and the better appreciated would be the festival. After seeing the penance of St. John's fast equalled to the austerity of that preceding Christmas, is it not surprising to behold the Church in her liturgy making the two Nativities closely resemble one another, to a degree that would be apt to stagger the limping faith of many nowadays?
The Nativity of St. John, like that of our Lord, was celebrated by three Masses: the first, in the dead of night, commemorated his title of Precursor; the second, at daybreak, honoured the baptism he conferred; the third, at the hour of Terce, hailed his sanctity. [Sacrament. Gregor. Amal., pseudo-Alcuin., Ord. rom.] The preparation of the bride, the consecration of the Bridegroom, his own peerless holiness: a threefold triumph, which at once linked the servant to the Master, and deserved the homage of a triple sacrifice to God the Thrice-Holy, manifested to John in the plurality of His Persons, and revealed by him to the Church. In like manner, as there were formerly two Matins on Christmas night, so, in many places, a double Office was celebrated on the feast of St. John. ... The first Office began at the decline of day; it was without Alleluia, in order to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets which lasted up to St. John. The second Office, begun in the middle of the night, terminated at dawn; this was sung with Alleluia, to denote the opening of the time of grace and of the kingdom of God.
Irritated at the sight of the Lamb that he pointed out as the salvation of the whole world and not of Israel alone, Joy, which is the characteristic of this feast, outstripped the limits of the sacred precincts and shed itself abroad, as far even as the infidel Mussulmans. Whereas at Christmas the severity of the season necessarily confined to the domestic hearth all touching expansion of private piety, the lovely summer nights at St. John's tide gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. In this way, the people seemed to make up for what circumstances prevented in the way of demonstrations to the Infant God, by the glad honours they could render to the cradle of His Precursor. Scarcely had the last rays of the setting sun died away, than all the world over, from the far East to the farthest West, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain top; and, in an instant, every town and village and smallest hamlet was lighted up. 'St. John's fires,' as they were called, were an authentic testimony, repeating over and over again the truth of the words of the Angel and of prophecy, that universal gladness was to hail the birthday of Elizabeth's son. Like a 'burning and shining light,' to use the expression of our Lord, he had appeared in the midst of endless night, and for a time the Synagogue was willing to rejoice in his light; but, disconcerted by his fidelity which prevented him from giving himself out as the Christ and the true Light; [St. John i 20][Ibid. i 29] the Synagogue had turned back again into night, and had drawn across her own eyes that fatal bandage which causes her to remain, up to this day, in her sad darkness. Filled with gratitude to him who had wished neither to diminish nor to deceive the bride, the Gentile world, on her side, exalted him all the more for his having lowered himself; gathering together and applying to herself those sentiments which ought to have animated the repudiated Synagogue, she was fain to manifest by all means in her power, that without confounding the borrowed light of the Precursor with that of the Sun of justice Himself, she none the less hailed with enthusiasm this light which had been to the entire human race the very dawn of nuptial gladness.
It may almost be said of the 'St. John's fires,' that they date, like the festival itself, from the very beginning of Christianity. They made their appearance, at least, from the earliest days of the period of peace, like a sample fruit of popular initiative; but not indeed without sometimes exciting the anxious attention of the fathers and councils, ever on the watch to banish every superstitious notion from manifestations, which otherwise so happily began to replace the pagan festivities proper to the solstices. But the necessity of combating some abuses, which are just as possible in our own days as in those, did not withhold the Church from encouraging a species of demonstration which so well answered to the very character of the feast. 'St. John's fires' made a happy completion to the liturgical solemnity; testifying how one and the same thought possessed the mind both of holy Church and of the terrestrial city; for the organization of these rejoicings originated with the civil corporations, and the expenses were defrayed by the municipalities. Thus the privilege of lighting the bonfire was usually reserved to some dignitary of the civil order. Kings themselves, taking part in the common merry-making, would esteem it an honour to give this signal to popular gladness; Louis XIV, as late as 1648, lighted the bonfire on the 'place de Greve,' as his predecessors had done. In other places, as is even now done in Catholic Brittany, the clergy were invited to bless the piles of wood, and to cast thereon the first brand; whilst the crowd, bearing flaming torches, would disperse over the neighbouring country, amidst the ripening crops, or would march along the coast, following the tortuous cliff-paths, shouting for joy, and the adjacent islands would reply by lighting up their festive fires.
In some parts the custom prevailed of rolling a burning wheel; this was a self-revolving red-hot disk, rolling along the streets or down from the hill-top, to represent the movement of the sun, which attains the highest point in his orbit, to begin at once his descent; thus was the word of the Precursor brought to mind.
When speaking of the Messias, he says: 'He must increase, and I must decrease.' [St. John iii 30] The symbolism was completed by the custom, then in vogue, of burning old bones and rubbish on this day which proclaims the end of the ancient law and the beginning of the new Covenant, according to the Holy Scripture, where it is written: 'And new store coming on, you shall cast away the old.' [Lev. xxvi 10]
Blessed are the populations amongst whom is still preserved something of such customs, whence the simplicity of our forefathers drew a gladness more true and more pure than their descendants seek in festivities wherein the soul has no part!
To the Office of Lauds, on this day, a special importance is to be attached, because the Canticle Benedictus, which is sung during Lauds all the year round, is the expression of the sentiments inspired by the Holy Ghost to the father of St. John the Baptist, on the occasion of that birthday which gave joy both to God and man. Being unable to insert the entire Office, we give at least this canticle. The two hymns, which here precede it, were composed by Paul the Deacon, as a sequel to that
already given above for Vespers. The antiphons, capitulum and versicle used at Lauds are the same as those of second Vespers.
The Canticle of Zachary
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel:
because He hath visited and wrought the redemption of His people.
And hath raised up a 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, Precursor of the Emmanuel,
shalt be called the prophet of the Most High:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, to prepare His ways.
To give unto His people the knowledge of salvation, 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 in the way of peace.
The Mass is composed of various passages from the Old and New Testaments. The Church, as liturgical authors say, wishes hereby to remind us that John forMs the link binding together both Testaments, he himself sharing in each. He is the precious clasp which fastens the double mantle of the Law and of grace across the breast of the eternal Pontiff.
The Introit is from Isaias; the text from which it is taken will occur again, and at greater length, in the Epistle. Psalm xci was formerly chanted with it. The first verse alone is now used, although the primary motive of this choice lay in its following verse and in its thirteenth: 'It is good. . . to shew forth thy mercy in the morning and thy truth in the night . . . The just shall flourish like the palm-tree; he shall grow up like the cedar of Libanus.'
The Lesson of the Prophet Isaias.
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: Behold I have given thee to be the light of the Gentiles, that thou mayest 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, and for the Holy One of Israel, Who hath chosen thee.
In these few lines Isaias implicitly refers to the announcement of Christ's coming: the application here made by the Church to St. John Baptist once more shows us how closely the Messias is united with His Precursor in the work of the redemption. Rome, once capital of the Gentile world, now mother of Christendom, delights in proclaiming, on this day, to the sons whom the Spouse has given her, the consoling prophecy which was addressed to them before she herself was founded upon the seven hills. Eight hundred years before the birth of John and of the Messias, a voice had been heard on Sion, and, reaching beyond the frontiers of Jacob, had re-echoed along those distant coasts where sin's darkness held mankind in the thraldom of Hell: 'Give ear, ye islands; and hearken, ye people from afar!' It was the voice of him who was to come, and of the Angel deputed to walk before him, the voice of John and of the Messias, proclaiming the one predestination common to them both, which, as servant and as Master, made them to be objects of the same eternal decree. And this voice, after having hailed the privilege which would designate them, though diversely, from the maternal womb, as objects of complacency to the Almighty, went on to utter the Divine oracle which was to be promulgated, in other terms, over their cradles by the ministry of Zachary and of Angels. 'And He said to me: Thou art My servant Israel, for in thee will I glory,' in thee who art indeed Israel to Me.' And he said: It is a small thing that thou shouldst be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to convert the dregs of Israel,' [Isa. xlix] who will not hearken to thee, and of whom thou shalt bring back but a small remnant. 'Behold I have given thee to be the light of the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation even to the farthest part of the earth'; to make up for the scant welcome my people shall have given thee, 'kings shall see, and princes shall rise up,' at thy word, ' and adore for the Lord's sake, because He is faithful, and for the Holy One of Israel, Who hath chosen thee' [Ibid. 6, 7] as the negotiator of His alliance.
Children of the Bridegroom, let us enter into this thought; let us understand what ought to be the gratitude of us Gentiles to him to whom all flesh is indebted for its knowledge of the Redeemer. [Ibid. xl 5] From the wilderness, where his voice stung the pride of the descendants of the patriarchs, he beheld us succeeding to the haughty Synagogue: without minimizing the Divine exactions, his stern language, when addressed to the Bridegroom's chosen ones, assumed a tone of consideration which it never had for the Jews. 'Ye offspring of vipers,' said he to these latter, 'who hath shown you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits worthy of penance, and do not begin to say: We have Abraham for our father. For I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For in your case, already is the axe laid to the root of the tree. Every tree, therefore, that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire.'[St. Luke iii 7-9] But to the despised publican, to the hated soldier, to all those parched hearts of the Gentile world, hard and and as the desert rock, John the Baptist announced a flow of grace that would refresh their dried-up souls making them fruitful in justice: 'Ye publicans, do nothing more than what is appointed you, by the exigencies of the tax-laws; ye soldiers, be content with your pay.[Ibid. 12-14] The law was given by Moses; but better is grace; grace and truth come by Jesus Christ Whom I declare unto you; [St. John i 15-17] He it is Who taketh away the sins of the world,' [Ibid. 29] and of His fullness we have all received. [Ibid. 16]
What a new horizon was here opened out before these objects of reproach, held aloof so long by Israel's scorn! But in the eyes of the Synagogue, such a blow aimed at Juda's pretended privilege was a crime. She had borne the biting invectives of this son of Zachary; she had even, at one moment, shown herself ready to hail him as the Christ; [Ibid. 19] but she who vaunted herself as pure, to be invited to go hand in hand with the unclean Gentile---she could never submit to that; from that moment John was judged by her as His Master would be afterwards. Later on, Jesus will insist upon the difference of welcome given to the Precursor by those who listened to him. He will even make it the basis of His sentence of reprobation pronounced against the Jews: 'Amen I say to you, that the publicans and harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you; for John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the publicans and harlots believed him: but you seeing it, did not even afterwards repent, that you might believe him.' [st. Matt. xxi 31, 32] ...
After the places hallowed by the sojourn here below of the Word made Flesh, there is no spot of greater interest for the Christian soul than that wherein were accomplished the events just mentioned in our Gospel. The town in which the Precursor was born is situated about two leagues from Jerusalem, to the west; just as Bethlehem, our Saviour's birthplace, is at the same distance southwards from the holy city. Going out by the gate of Jaffa, the pilgrim bound for St. John of the Mountain passes on his way the Greek monastery of Holy Cross, raised on the spot where the trees which formed our Lord's Cross were hewn down: then, pursuing his course through the close-set woods of the mountains of Juda, he attains a summit whence he can descry the waters of the Mediterranean. The house of Obed-Edom, which for three months harboured the sacred Ark of tile Covenant, stood here, whence a by-path leads by a short cut directly to the place where Mary, the true Ark, dwelt for three happy months in the house of her cousin Elizabeth. Two sanctuaries, distant about a thousand paces one from the other, are sacred to the memory of the two great facts just related to us by St. Luke: in the one, John the Baptist was conceived and born; in the other, the circumcision of the Precursor took place eight days after his birth. The first of these sanctuaries stands on the site of Zachary's town-house; its present form dates from a period anterior to the Crusades. It is a beautiful church with three naves and a cupola, measuring thirty-seven feet in length. The high altar is dedicated to St. Zachary, and another altar, on the right, to St. Elizabeth. On the left, seven marble steps lead to a subterranean chapel hollowed out of the rock, which is identical with the furthermost apartment of the original house: this is the sanctuary of St. John's Nativity. Four lamps glimmer in the darkness of this venerable crypt, whilst six others, suspended beneath the altar-slab itself, throw light on the following inscription engraved upon the marble pavement:
HIC PRÆCURSOR DOMINI NATUS EST.
Let us unite on this day with the devout sons of St. Francis, guardians of those ineffable memories; more fortunate here than at Bethlehem with its sacred grotto, they have not to dispute with schism the homage which they pay in the name of the legitimate bride to the friend of the Bridegroom upon the very spot of his Nativity.
Local tradition sets at some distance from this first sanctuary, as we have said, the memorable place where the circumcision of the Precursor was performed. Besides a town-house, Zachary was owner of another more isolated. Elizabeth had retired thither during the first months of her pregnancy, to meditate in silence upon the gift of God. [St. Luke i 24, 25] There did the meeting between herself and our Lady on her arrival from Nazareth take place; there the sublime exultation of the infants and their mothers; there the Magnificat proclaimed to Heaven that earth henceforth could rival, and even surpass, supernal songs of praise and canticles of love. It was fitting that Zachary's song, the morning canticle, should be first intoned there, where that of evening had ascended like incense of sweetest fragrance. In the accounts given by ancient pilgrims, it is noticed that there were here two sanctuaries placed one above the other: in the lower one Mary and Elizabeth met; in the upper story of this country-house most of the incidents just set before us by the Church occurred.
Urban V, in I368, ordered that the Credo should be chanted on the day of St. John Baptist's Nativity and during the octave, to prevent the Precursor's appearing to be in any way inferior to the Apostles.
THE DECOLLATION OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST
'AT that time, Herod sent and apprehended John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, the wife of Philip, his brother, because he had married her. For John said to Herod: "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife." Now Herodias laid snares for him, and was desirous to put him to death, and could not. For Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man, and kept him, and when he heard him did many things; and he heard him willingly. And when the convenient day was come, Herod maue a supper for his birthday, for the princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodius had come in, and had danced and pleased Herod, and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: "Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee." And he swore to her, "Whatsoever thou shalt ask, I will give thee; though it be the half of my kiugdom." Who, when she was gone out, said to her mother: "What shall I ask?" But she said, "The head of John the Baptist." And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying, "I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish the head of John the Baptist." And the king was struck sad; yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her; but sending an executioner he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish. And he beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a dish, and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother. Which his disciples hearing, came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. [Gospel of the Feast, St. Mark vi. 17-29]
Thus died the greatest of 'them that are born of women:' without witnesses, the prisoner of a petty tyrant, the victim of the vilest of passions, the wages of a dancing girl! Rather than keep silence in the presence of crime, although there were no hope of converting the sinner, or give up his liberty, even when in chains: the herald of the Word made flesh was ready to die. How beautiful, as St. John Chrysostom remarks, is this liberty of speech, when it is truly the liberty of God's Word, when it is an echo of Heaven's language! Then, indeed, it is a stumbling-block to tyranny, the safeguard of the world and of God's rights, the bulwark of a nation's honour as well as of its temporal and eternal interests. Death has no power over it. To the weak murderer of John the Baptist, and to all who would imitate him to the end of time, a thousand tongues, instead of one, repeat in all languages and in all places: 'It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.'
'O great and admirable mystery!' cries out Saint Augustine. 'He must increase, but I must decrease, said John, said the voice which personified all the voices that had gone before announcing the Father's Word Incarnate in His Christ. Every word, in that it signifies something, in that it is an idea, an internal word, is independent of the number of syllables, of the various letters and sounds; it remains unchangeable in the heart that conceives it, however numerous may be the words that give it outward existence, the voices that utter it, the languagcs, Greek, Latin and the rest, into which it may be translated, To him who knows the word, expressions and voices are useless. The prophets were voices, the Apostles were voices; voices are in the psalms, voices in the Gospel. But let the Word come, the Word who was in the beginning, the Word Who was with God, the Word Who was God; when we shall see Him as He is, shall we hear the Gospel repeated? Shall we listen to the prophets? Shall we read the Epistles of the Apostles? The voice fails where the Word increases. ... Not that in Himself the Word can either diminish or increase. But He is said to grow in us, when we grow in Him. To him, then, who draws near to Christ, to him who makes progress in the contemplation of wisdom, words are of little use; of necessity they tend to fail altogether. Thus the ministry of the voice falls short in proportion as the soul progresses towards the Word; it is thus that Christ must increase and John decrease. The same is indicated by the decollation of John, and the exaltation of Christ upon the Cross; as it had already been shown by their birthdays: for, from the birth of John the days begin to shorten, and from the birth of our Lord they begin to grow longer.' [Aug. Sermon cclxxxviii, In Natali S. J. Bapt. II. De voce et verbo.]
The holy doctor here gives a useful lesson to those who guide souls along the path to perfection. If, from the very beginning, they must respectfully observe the movements of grace in each of them, in order to second the Holy Ghost, and not to supplant Him so also, in proportion as these souls advance, the directors must be careful not to impede the Word by the abundance of their own speech. Moreover, they must discreetly respect the ever-growing powerlessness of those souls to express what our Lord is working in them. Happy to have led the bride to the Bridegroom, let them learn to say with John: 'He must increase, but I must decrease.'
The sacred cycle itself seems to convey to us too a similar lesson; for, during the following days, we shall see its teaching as it were tempered down, by the fewness of the feasts, and the disappearance of great solemnities until November. The school of the holy liturgy aims at adapting the soul, more surely and more fullly than could any other sehool, to the interior teaching of the Spouse. Like John, the Church would be glad to let God alone speak always, if that were possible here below; at least, towards the end of the way, she loves to moderate her voice, and sometimes even to keep silence, in order to give her children an opportunity of showing that they know how to listen inwardly to Him, Who is both her and their sole love. Let those who interpret her thought, first understand it well. The friend of the Bridegroom, who, until the nuptial-day, walked before Him, now stands and listens; and the voiee of the Bridegroom, which silences His Own, fills him with immense joy: 'This my joy therefore is fulfilled,' said the precursor. [St. John iii. 29]
Thus the Feast of the Decollation of St. John may be considered as one of the landmarks of the liturgical year. With the Greeks it is a holiday of obligation. Its great antiquity in the Latin Church is evidenced by the mention made of it in the Martyrology called St. Jerome's, and by the place it occupies in the Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries. The precursor's blessed death took place about the Feast of the Pasch; but, that it might be more freely celebrated, this day was chosen, whereon his sacred head was discovered at Emesa.
The vengeance of God fell heavily upon Herod Antipas. Josephus relates how he was overcome by the Arabian Aretas, whose daughter he had repudiated in order to follow his wicked passions; and the Jews attributed the defeat to the murder of St. John. [Joseph. Antiquit. Jud. xviii. 6] He was deposed by Rome from his tetrarchate, and banished to Lyons in Gaul, where the ambitious Herodias shared his disgrace. As to her dancing daughter Salome, there is a tradition gathered from ancient authors, [Pseudo-Dexter, chronicon, adann. Christi 31; Niecph, Call. i. xx] that, having gone out one winter day to dance upon a frozen river, she fell through into the water; the ice, immediately closing round her neck, cut off her head, which bounded upon the surface, thus continuing for some moments the dance of death.
From Macherontis, beyond the Jordan, where their master had suffered Martyrdom, John's disciples carried his body to Sebaste (Samaria), out of the territory of Antipas; it was necessary to save it from the profanations of Herodias, who had not spared his august head. The wretched woman did not think her vengeance complete, till she had pierced with a hairpin the tongue that had not feared to utter her shame; and that face, which for seven centuries the church of Amiens has offered to the veneration of the world, still bears traces of the violence inflicted by her in her malicious triumph. In the reign of Julian the Apostate, the pagans wished to complete the work of this unworthy descendant of the Machabees, [By her grandmother, Mariamne, grandaughter of Hyrcanus] by opening the Saint's tomb at Sebaste, in order to burn and scatter his remains. But the empty sepulchre continued to be a terror to the demons, as St. Paula attested with deep emotion a few years later. Moreover, some of the precious relics were saved, and dispersed throughout the east. Later on, especially at the time of the Crusudes, they were brought into the west, where many churches glory in possessing them.