We only celebrate the births of three people in the liturgical calendar of the Church’s year: Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist; and tonight is the Eve of “Saint John Baptist,” as he is called in the 1928 Prayer Book Lectionary. There will not be a formal service for the Nativity of St. John at Christ Church tomorrow, but he will be commemorated at Morning Prayer, which will be videocast via Facebook Live from the Rector’s Office at 9:10 a.m. Anyone who wishes to come and join me at that time is, of course, warmly invited to do so!
The blog “The Homely Hours” notes that John the Baptist’s nativity was celebrated very early in the history of the Church – to the point that it was an old feast day for St. Augustine, in the 4th century – and continues,
“We read about John’s birth in Luke 1. The angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah, a priest, that his barren wife Elizabeth will bear a son. When Zechariah questions the angel, he is struck speechless until Elizabeth gives birth and he declares his son’s name to be John.” (See the Propers for the day, below.) “Scripture tells us nothing of John’s life between his birth and public ministry (although one tradition says that Elizabeth and John lived with the Holy Family after Zechariah was killed with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents). John lived in the desert as a Nazirite, dressed in skins and eating locusts and wild honey — a “voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.” Jesus came to John to be baptized and “fulfill all righteousness.” John was imprisoned by Herod and then beheaded. Jesus said of John, “among those born of women, there is none greater than John.” (Luke 7:28).”
As I commented during Advent, St. John the Baptist was the cusp, the hinge-pin, as it were, between the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament – being “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” – and the apostolic tradition of the New Testament.
Because this feast fell almost precisely on the Summer Solstice, it was celebrated in medieval and later Europe as Midsummer, and a number of ancient customs and traditions anciently associated with that date, such as bonfires, were re-envisioned as representing John’s proclamation of Christ as the Light of the world. A friend of mine, of German heritage, points out that
“At the summer solstice when nights are shortest, Germans gather around great bonfires to sing songs. Then, as the flames lower, they leap over them, sometimes as couples holding hands. This folk custom coincides with the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, of whom the Apostle John in his Gospel (5:35) says, ‘He was a burning and a shining light: and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.’ So the bonfires on this occasion have the name Johannesfeuer, i.e., the Fire of St. John the Baptist.”
Similar customs have long been performed in England as well, and in many other parts of Europe. Unlike some European folk customs, however, those surrounding the Nativity of Our Lord’s Forerunner do not seem, by and large, to have made the pilgrimage across the Atlantic to these United States! Be that as it may, I wish everyone a happy, holy, and blessed feast of Saint John Baptist. And may God bless you all, and your families, this summer and in the days ahead!
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Fr. Tom Harbold
The Propers for Saint John Baptist
The Book of Common Prayer 1928
ALMIGHTY God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour by preaching repentance; Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For the Epistle. Isa. xl. 1.
COMFORT ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight. and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold, the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
The Gospel. St. Luke i. 57.
ELISABETH’S full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto 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 he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed. and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judæa. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him. And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. 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 unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.