Monday, June 24, 2013

Liturgical Notes on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

The Birth of St. John the Baptist is celebrated as one of the most ancient of all the Church’s feasts; it is mentioned several times by St. Augustine in his sermons, and in the Martyrology written around 440 A.D. and falsely attributed to St. Jerome. The date is determined by the words of the Gospel of St. Luke that St. John’s mother Elizabeth was six months pregnant at the time of the Annuntiation (chap. 1, 36). The feast is kept on the 24th of the month however, where Christmas is kept on the 25th, because of the Roman system of counting days. The Romans counted the days backwards from three points in each month, the Kalends, the Nones and the Ides (“Kalendae”, “Nonae” and “Idus” in Latin). Thus Julius Caesar was killed on the Ides of March, which we call March 15th, but the Roman name for March 14th was “the day before the Ides of March”. Therefore, the birth of both the Savior and His Forerunner are kept seven days before the Kalends of the following months.

The feast was formerly kept with three Masses like Christmas, but this custom gradually died out and was no longer observed at the time of the Tridentine liturgical reform; the Mass in the Missal of St. Pius V is the equivalent of the third Mass of Christmas, to be said around the hour of Terce. St. Augustine notes that John the Baptist is the only Saint whose birth the Church celebrates apart from that of the Savior Himself, the feast of Our Lady’s Birth having not yet been instituted in his time. This custom is observed in fulfillment of the words of the Angel Gabriel to John’s father Zachariah that “Many shall rejoice in his birth,” (Luke 1, 14) in the Gospel read on the vigil of the feast.

The liturgical commentator William Durandus, writing at the end of the 13th century, says that “the Church solemnizes three births, namely, those of John the Baptist, the Blessed Mary, and Christ. And indeed John was the morning-star, for just as the morning-star precedes the sun, so he preceded Christ; for he preached Him first. Mary was the dawn. The birth of Christ was the rising of the sun, because in Him the splendor of the Father appeared.” (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum, 7, 28) The feasts of the Birth of Christ and of John the Baptist are preceded by penitential vigils, Masses celebrated in violet, without the Gloria in excelsis or Alleluia, since John preached a baptism of repentance, and Christ came to call sinners, but the Virgin had no need of repentance, and so the feast of Her birth has no vigil.

It has often been noted that the days of the year begin to grow shorter right after the Birth of John the Baptist, which is three days after the summer solstice, and begin to grow longer right after the Birth of Christ, four days after the winter solstice. The priest who taught me to serve the traditional Mass once explained in a beautiful homily of two sentences how this symbolizes the words in which St. John “summed up the entire Gospel in a single sentence, ‘I must decrease, that He may increase.’ ” (John 3, 30)

Many popular customs are attached to this feast. Durandus notes that it was a custom in places to make bonfires of the bones of animals, to drive away evil influences (such as dragons!) that were believed to pollute the waters in summertime: a custom which he is astute enough to note was inherited “from the gentiles”. But he also notes that bones were burned to commemorate the fact that the bones of John the Baptist were burnt “in the city of Sebaste.” (Rationale 7, 14) In point of fact, to this day, the city of Genoa preserves in its cathedral relics that are venerated as the ashes of St. John the Baptist, the tradition being that the bones were deliberately burnt to make the relics easier to transport and hide from iconoclasts. As any good medieval liturgist would, Durandus also sees in this custom an allegory of the passing of the Old Law and the coming of the New, noting also that torches were also made of the bones to symbolize that John was “the light, the lantern that burned and preceded, the forerunner of the true light that enlighteneth every man.” A vestige of this custom is preserved in the Rituale Romanum of Pope Paul V, which provides for a blessing of a fire on the eve of St. John.

It is also a well-known fact that the Vesper hymn of St. John provided the names of the notes for the first diatonic scale, noted by Guido of Arezzo in the 11th century. The opening stanza reads
Ut queant laxis / resonare fibris
Mira gestorum / famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti / labii reatum,
   Sancte Ioannes.
The six notes of the original scale are named for the syllables at the beginning of each half-line, each such syllable occurring on a higher note than the one preceding. The names of the notes were thus originally, “ut – re – mi – fa – sol – la”; the scale was later increased to seven notes with the addition of “si”, from “Sancte Ioannes”. In Italian, “ut” was changed to “do” to make it easier to pronounce and sing, since words do not end in hard consonants in Italian, and “si” was changed to “ti” in the English-speaking word in the 19th century.

Less well known is the story of how the hymn was composed by a monk of Monte Cassino called Paul the Deacon, who also wrote an important “History of the Lombards”, and compiled the collection of homilies and sermons which forms the traditional corpus of patristic writings in the Divine Office. According to Durandus, he had lost his voice one Easter when he was supposed to sing the Exsultet, and “wrote the hymn Ut queant laxis in honor of John the Baptist that his voice might be restored, at the beginning of which he asks for the restoration of his voice, which he obtained, as it was also restored to Zachariah by the merits of St. John.” (Rationale ibid.)
So that these thy servants can, with all their voice, sing thy wondrous deeds, clean the blemish of our spotted lips, O Saint John! 
The Birth of John the Baptist, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, in the Tornabuoni Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican parish in Florence, 1485-1490.

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