Above: St. John’s Eve in Oviedo, Spain.
The Vigil and the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 23rd is the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This 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. 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.
An interesting fact is that our musical scale (do, re, mi) took its names from the tones of the Vesper Hymn for St. John.
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
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. The day 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. Indeed, so great was the rank of this festival that, just as on Christmas, three Masses were celebrated, one during the vigil service, the second at dawn, the third in the morning. 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, in regard to 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 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?
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. For more on the Octave of St. John the Baptist, along with some basic principles of how Octaves worked in the first half of the twentieth century, click here.
St. Christopher’s Day
July 25th, besides the feast of St. James the Greater, is the Commemoration of St. Christopher (i.e., St. Christopherus). He is one of the 14 Holy Helpers and is the patron of travelers, especially motorists, and is invoked in storms and tempests. This day is the ideal day to have a priest bless your vehicles using the traditional Roman Rituale blessing whose English translation beautifully asks:
Lord God, be well disposed to our prayers, and bless + this vehicle with your holy hand. Appoint your holy angels as an escort over it, who will always shield its passengers and keep them safe from accidents. And as once by your deacon, Philip, you bestowed faith and grace upon the Ethiopian seated in his carriage and reading Holy Writ, so also now show the way of salvation to your servants, in order that, strengthened by your grace and ever intent upon good works, they may attain, after all the successes and failures of this life, the certain happiness of everlasting life; through Christ our Lord. All: Amen.
Name Day Celebrations
Another way we can restore Catholic culture is by celebrating our names days. Turning again to the wisdom of Father Weiser we learn:
It was a general custom before the Reformation, and still is in Catholic countries, to celebrate not so much the birthday, but, rather, the feast of the saint whose name was received in baptism. This ‘baptismal saint’ is considered a special and personal patron all through life. Children are made familiar with the history and legend of ‘their own’ saint, are inspired by his life and example, pray to him every day, and gratefully accept his loving help in all their needs. It is a beautiful custom, this close relationship of an individual to his personal patron saint in Heaven.
Do you celebrate your and your family members’ name days? If not, when can you start?
Help Restore Catholic Culture through Customs
We do not even need to wait for liturgical years to change or saint days to occur. Each and every day is an opportunity for us to help restore Catholic culture through daily customs. Here are some ways we can all do so today:
- Bow your head at the name of “Jesus” no matter where you are or what you are doing. And if you are wearing a hat, remove it for the head bow.
- Say “Blessed be the name of God” in reparation any time you hear the name of God taken in vain.
- When passing by a Catholic Church (whether on foot, bike, or car), make the sign of the Cross out of respect for our God who is present in the Church in the tabernacle.
- Pray grace before and after meals (including making the Sign of the Cross) even in public.
- Make the Sign of the Cross and offer a Hail Mary whenever an ambulance passes by.
- When passing a cemetery, offer a prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory whose mortal remains rest in that cemetery.
- Never eat meat on a Friday, even if it is a Holy Day of Obligation
- Bless your children before bed with the sign of the Cross and holy water
- Pray the Rosary as a family.
- Pray the Angelus daily at least at noon (which is traditionally said kneeling except on Sundays when it is prayed standing and with a genuflection for the 3rd verse).
Through all our actions, including the small customs of day-to-day life, may our Lord Jesus Christ shine in our conduct. And may the glory of His Church, the Catholic Church, shine ever brighter in our families, our parishes, our cities, and our nations. AMDG.