Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Liturgical Notes on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Reprint)

This was the first in my occasional series of Liturgical Notes for major feasts. It is here reprinted with some adjustments to the original version; I have also added a video with a recording of the famous hymn for Vespers of St John’s Day Ut queant laxis.

The Birth of St. John the Baptist is one of the most ancient of all the Church’s feasts; it is mentioned several times by St. Augustine in his sermons, and in a 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 Annunciation (chap. 1, 36). The feast is kept on the 24th, however, where Christmas and the Annunciation are kept on the 25th of their respective months, because of a peculiar feature of the ancient Roman calendar. The Romans counted the days backwards from three points in each month, called 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 two different Masses, one of which was to be said early in the morning, and the other after Terce. This custom gradually died out and was observed only in a very few places at the time of the Tridentine liturgical reform; the Mass in the Missal of St. Pius V is the second of these two. 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) which are read on the vigil the day before.

The Gospel of the vigil, Luke 1, 5-17, was formerly continued at the first Mass of the feast with verses 18-25, recounting Zachariah’s doubt and punishment, and the conception of the Baptist, ending with the words of his mother, “Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he hath had regard to take away my reproach among men.” The Gospel of the second (now only) Mass, Luke 1, 57-68, is one of very few that does not begin with the words “At that time,” but rather starts directly with “Elizabeth’s full time of being delivered was come, and she brought forth a son.” The name of St John’s mother is also the first word of the first antiphon of Lauds and Vespers, which reflects the fact that it was she, and not Zachariah, who declared St John’s name, the name which, as St Ambrose notes, “Elizabeth learned by prophecy, ... not from her husband.”

A 16th-century Russian icon of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. The arrangement of the figures is very similar to that of icons of the birth of the Virgin Mary, but here Zachariah is shown at the foot of the bed writing “John is his name.”  
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 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, Paul 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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