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Forgotten Customs of St. John the Baptist

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Born to Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth, St. John the Baptist’s birth was miraculous due to his parents’ advanced age. Leading an ascetic lifestyle in the wilderness, St. John wore camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and preached repentance and the imminent Kingdom of God. His recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and his act of baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan marked the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry. St. John proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He was the final prophet before Our Lord’s coming.

St. John the Baptist’s condemnation of Herod Antipas’ unlawful marriage to Herodias led to his imprisonment and eventual beheading, as requested by Herodias’ daughter, Salome. Speaking of him, the Savior Himself said: “Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11). Hence, given his importance, customs have arisen over the centuries in connection with the liturgical celebrations of St. John the Baptist.

St. John the Baptist Was Born (But Not Conceived) Without Original Sin

Did you know that tradition says St. John the Baptist, the Precursor of Christ, was cleansed from original sin in his mother’s womb? Many Catholics are often surprised to learn – since it is not often taught – that St. John the Baptist was cleansed from sin in his mother’s womb. This is what we celebrate on the Feast of the Visitation.

It is not a dogma, but most theologians agree with this. And it makes sense. To be a forerunner of Christ, St. John the Baptist should have been freed of Original Sin. So while not an Immaculate Conception, like the Blessed Mother, St. John the Baptist was purified in the womb and born without Original Sin, though he was still conceived with Original Sin. This is mentioned in the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should ‘be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb’. Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin.

The Church only celebrates the birthdays of those who were born without original sin – St. John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Our Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24th is celebrated just as is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8th or Our Lord’s Nativity on December 25th. All other saints are generally honored on the date of their death or in some cases their episcopal consecration – for bishops – or sometimes a separate date close to their date of death if the actual date itself is already impeded by an existing feast day. But with these three, we honor their birthdays as well.

Fasting on the Vigil of St. John the Baptist

June 23rd is the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, which used to be a day of fasting and abstinence. And we may certainly keep it as such to prepare. Dom Guéranger, writing in the mid-1800s on the great Feast of the Nativity of the Lord’s forerunner, relates the following:

On the Lateran Piazza (or Square) the faithful Roman people will keep vigil to-night, 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.

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 equaled 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?

By 1893, the only fasting days kept in Rome were the forty days of Lent, the Ember Days, and the Vigils of the Purification, of Pentecost, of St. John the Baptist, of Ss. Peter and Paul, of the Assumption, of All Saints, and of Christmas. This is summarized from The Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome. In just a few years after this, Rome would abrogate the fast on the Vigil of the Purification and on the Vigil of St. John the Baptist. But we can keep this long-established penance as a pious custom.

Want to learn more about the history of fasting and abstinence?

St. John’s Eve Bonfires

In addition to fasting and abstaining from meat, we can also keep the venerable practice of having St. John Eve bonfires on the night of June 23rd. Even today, the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is celebrated with bonfires in many Catholic nations. 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.

One of the greatest ways we can honor St. John the Baptist is by observing this ancient custom with our family, friends, and neighbors. This is a public way to bear witness to the Faith. Additionally, we can learn about the custom of St. John’s wort and make wreaths as Fish Eaters further adds:

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. Swedish girls will pick seven flowers from seven different fields, and place them under their pillows on this night so they will dream about their future husbands, and in Slavic countries, such as Poland, floral wreaths are floated down the river in honor of Christ’s Baptism by St. John in the Jordan.

Another interesting fact is that our musical scale (solfège, i.e. “do, re, mi”) took its names from the tones of the Vespers Hymn for St. John, Ut queant laxis, mentioned above. Use that as trivia sometime and mention the importance of St. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist as a Holy Day of Obligation

On June 24th, six months before the birth of Our Lord, we celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. It was St. John the Baptist that prepared the way for Our Lord and bore witness to Him. Today was for some time a Holy Day of Obligation.

Father Weiser writes of the importance of the Feast of St. John’s Nativity:

The Council of Agde, in 506, listed the Nativity of Saint John among the highest feasts of the year, a day on which all faithful had to attend Mass and abstain from servile work In 1022, a synod at Seligenstadt, Germany, prescribed a fourteen-day fast and abstinence in preparation for the Feast of the Baptist. This, however, was never accepted into universal practice by the Roman authorities.

By the time of the changes to the Holy Days of Obligation in 1642, Pope Urban VIII kept the Nativity of St. John the Baptist as a day of precept. Why the importance? Father Weiser explains:

The days of all the Apostles were raised to the rank of public holy days in 932. The feasts of Saint Michael, Saint Stephen, Saint John the Baptist, and other saints of the early centuries were celebrated in the past as holy days among all Christian nations.

By the time of Father Weiser’s writing in the 1950s, regarding the feasts of saints (i.e., not feasts of Our Lord), only St. Joseph, Ss. Peter and Paul, All Saints, and the Marian feasts of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception remained as days of precept. And of these, Saint Joseph and Ss. Peter and Paul were exempt from obligation in the United States as they had been previously abrogated in the 1800s.

In Ireland, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist remained as a day of full precept longer than many other holy days. When changes were made to the Irish holy days in 1755 under Pope Benedict XIV and in 1778 under Pope Pius VI, the Nativity of St. John remained as a day of double precept, even when the feasts of the Apostles were reduced to a single precept. It was not abolished as a day of precept until 1831 in Ireland.

Dom Guéranger writes of how special this day used to be for our forefathers in the Faith:

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. 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, as Durandus of Mende, following Honorius of Autun, informs us. 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.

St. John the Baptist’s Nativity is a public holiday in Quebec and Puerto Rico as well as in Catalonia (where Barcelona is). Yet, how many of us honor this day in a special way?

The Octave of St. John the Baptist

Further illustrating the great importance of his Nativity, the Church kept it as an Octave up until the changes to Octaves by Pope Pius XII in 1955. This is a Common Octave, meaning that the Mass and Office of St. John the Baptist during the Octave days gives way to any feast day above the level of Simple. In practice, the only intra-octave day where the Mass of St. John would be celebrated, rather than merely commemorated, would be on June 27th. The other intra-octave days would be outranked by the liturgical feasts already on the Calendar of Saints.

We can live out this forgotten Octave by adding to our daily prayers the Collect from the Nativity of the Lord’s Precursor:

O God, Who hast made this day worthy of honor by the birth of blessed John: grant to Thy people the grace of spiritual joys, and direct the minds of all the faithful into the way of eternal salvation. Through Our Lord, etc..

The Martyrdom (i.e. Decollation) of St. John the Baptist

Along with his nativity, the Church commemorates on August 29th the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist when he was beheaded for defending the sanctity of God’s law. According to Father Pius Parsch’s The Church’s Year of Grace, this day commemorates “the second finding of his most venerable head.” As he writes: “In the year 362 pagans desecrated the grave and burned his remains. Only a small portion of his relics were able to be saved by monks and sent to St. Athanasius at Alexandria. The head of the saint is venerated at various places.”

Dom Guéranger describes what may have happened to Herod and the dancing girl in the years following:

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 fully than could any other school, 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 voice of the Bridegroom, which silences his own, fills him with immense joy: ‘This my joy therefore is fulfilled,’ said the precursor.

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. 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, 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.

One interesting point is that some of the Eastern Catholic Rites (e.g. the Melkite Catholic Church) the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is a day of fast and strict abstinence where neither wine nor oil are allowed.

The Litany of St. John the Baptist

To honor the Lord’s Precursor, we can pray the Litany of St. John the Baptist to ask for his powerful intercession with God. This is a private (i.e. not public) litany.

Conclusion

Say a prayer for St. John the Baptist’s intercession that he might lead us closer to Jesus Christ, Our Lord, and Master. And like St. John, may we be willing to stand true to Catholic faith and morality even if it means our own martyrdom. For his honor, and the glory of God, let us honor and observe these customs of our forefathers this year.

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