It’s the Nativity of St John the Baptist today and in a properly ordered world we’d be recovering, very gently, from the riotous bonfires and torchlight processions of the Vigil last night and just getting ready for a really special mass and a celebratory feast. Because the Nativity of St John the Baptist is meant to be HUGE. Right up to the Reformation there were bonfires the night before, marching watches by every guild and militia, a carnival atmosphere all round. The day itself was, to borrow the title of one account of the feast, The Summer Christmas – it was, to the summer solstice, what Christmas is to the winter one. And as such it’s a kind of Christian take on the solstice, that great axis of the year.
All the sermon writers from Augustine made great play with the notion of John – the daystar, the lantern and the burning light – being born just as the day is at its longest and starting from this point to wane. One common, if tactless, motif was that just as John was shortened by a head (ie, by Herod) so the days begin to shorten from now on, and just as Christ was raised up on the cross, so the days begin to lengthen from Christmas.
The whole notion, in fact, that Christianity in a somehow subversive and underhand way appropriated the customs of the pagans couldn’t be more wrong; all the sermon writers on John the Baptist were perfectly aware of the solstice and the pagan celebrations and they unhesitatingly made the most of them, remarking on their aptness (bonfires, rolling lighted wheels down hills et al) for the Baptist, who was described in terms of light. As for the pronouncement of the archangel to Zacharias that “many shall rejoice at his birth”, it was more or less a licence to have a really lovely time on the nativity, though it must be said that not many medieval or later Christians ever seem to have taken to heart the bit about John not drinking wine or strong stuff.
Indeed for centuries, the only earthly birthdays celebrated by the Church were those of Christ and the Baptist… that of the Virgin came much later. So why are we so rubbish at celebrating it now? Even if we can’t run to making it a holy day of obligation (which nowadays means transferring the feast to the nearest Sunday…and don’t get me started) we can at least highlight the feast and its symbolic importance, which is, I may say, acknowledged in the Church of England. It should be a festivity; we should be resurrecting the tradition of the bonfire on the vigil… this is the actual summer solstice tradition under our noses, yet we ignore it almost entirely while rather envying the druid types their fun on the June 21.
I once asked Cardinal Nichols why we had let the feast slip and he suggested it was because after the Vatican Council the Church focussed on those feasts associated with Christ. But John, the precursor of Christ, anticipated his birth, the same archangel appeared in parallel annunciations to their parents. Celebrating this feast is to celebrate Christ. So in a spirit of devout adherence to ancient observance – still preserved in bonfires from the west of Ireland to Dalmatia – we should make the most of it with some sort of fiesta. It’s not often you get a scriptural mandate to have fun; this is it.
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