Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Vigil of the Nativity of St John the Baptist

In the Roman Rite, the term “vigilia – vigil” traditionally means a penitential day of preparation for a major feast. The Mass of a Saint’s vigil is celebrated after None, as are the Masses of the ferias of Lent or the Ember Days, and in violet vestments; however, the deacon and subdeacon do not wear folded chasubles, as they do in Lent, but the dalmatic and tunicle. The Mass has neither the Gloria nor the Creed, the Alleluja is simply omitted before the Gospel, not replaced with a Tract, and Benedicamus Domino is said at the end in place of Ite, missa est

Folio 89r of the Gellone Sacramentary, 780 AD; the Mass of the vigil of the Nativity of St John, which is here called “jejunium Sancti Johannis Baptistae - the fast of St John the Baptist”, begins with the large decorated P at the bottom of the page. Note the hole where the parchment gave way in the process of preparation; the text is copied out around it on both sides. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048)
Because they are penitential days, they are not celebrated on a Sunday, but anticipated to the previous Saturday, which is the case this year for the vigil of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Before 1908, the feast of St Paulinus of Nola was ranked as a simple feast, and the vigil would have taken precedence over it, but in that year, St Pius X raised it to the rank of a double. The vigil is therefore observed in the Divine Office with the ninth lesson at Matins, and a commemoration at Lauds. Private Masses may be said of either the vigil or the feast, with the commemoration of the other; in major churches, the Mass of the feast is said after Terce, and that of the vigil after None.
The vigil of the Nativity of St John the Baptist is attested in all liturgical books of the Roman Rite until 1969, when vigils in the traditional sense were abolished. The same chants and Scriptural readings which it has in the Missal of St Pius V are already found in the oldest graduals and lectionaries, and the same prayers are all in place in the Gregorian Sacramentary at the beginning of the 9th century. The Baptist’s conception is noted on September 24th in many early Western calendars and martyrologies, but does not seem to have been kept as an actual feast as it is in the Byzantine Rite (one day earlier). This is because the vigil itself serves as the liturgical commemoration of his conception, the announcement of which by the Angel Gabriel to his father Zachariah is read as the Gospel of the day. This custom mirrors that of the Ember Wednesday of Advent, on which the Gospel of the Annunciation is read in preparation for Christmas.

The introit of the vigil sums up the Angel’s message, and prepares us for the great feast of the following day, on which “many will rejoice at his birth.”

Introitus Ne tímeas, Zacharía, exaudíta est oratio tua: et Elísabeth uxor tua pariet tibi filium, et vocábis nomen ejus Joannem: et erit magnus coram Dómino: et Spíritu Sancto replébitur adhuc ex útero matris suae: et multi in nativitáte eius gaudébunt. V. Dómine, in virtúte tua laetábitur rex: et super salutáre tuum exsultábit vehementer. Gloria Patri. Ne tímeas. (Do not be afraid, Zachary, thy prayer hath been heard, and Elizabeth thy wife shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John; and he shall be great before the Lord, and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb; and many will rejoice at his birth. V. O Lord, in Thy strength the king shall be glad; and in Thy salvation shall he rejoice exceedingly. Glory be. Do not be afraid.)

It has very often been noted that the birth of the Baptist occurs shortly after the summer solstice, when the hours of daylight begin to grow shorter, and the birth of Christ occurs shortly after the winter solstice, when the hours of daylight begin to grow longer. This arrangement is traditionally understood as a reflection of St John’s words about Christ, “He must wax, and I must wane.” (John 3, 30) The Collect of the vigil seems also to refer to this when it speaks not of the upcoming festivity, but rather of John’s role in sending us to Christ.

“Præsta, quáesumus, omnípotens Deus: ut familia tua per viam salútis incédat; et, beáti Joannis Praecursóris hortamenta sectendo, ad eum, quem praedixit, secúra perveniat, Dóminum nostrum Jesum Christum, Fílium tuum etc. – Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that Thy household may walk in the way of salvation and, by following the exhortations of blessed John the Forerunner, safely come to Him whom he foretold, even our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, etc.”

The Preaching of St John the Baptist, ca. 1665 by Mattia Preti (1613-99); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The Epistle, Jeremiah 1, 4-10, is chosen particularly for the words of verse 5, “Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee, and made thee a prophet unto the nations.” This makes a perfect complement to the Gospel, since it parallels the words of the angel to Zachariah so closely. “For … and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. … And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias (i.e. of a prophet).”

The association of this passage with John the Baptist goes back to the very origins of Latin Christianity, already cited in Tertullian’s treatise On the Soul, chapter 26. “Elizabeth exults with joy, (for) John had leaped in her womb; Mary magnifies the Lord, (for) Christ had so impelled Her. The mothers recognize each other’s offspring, being each herself recognized by them, who were of course alive, and not merely souls, but spirits also. So also do you read the word of God (spoken) to Jeremiah, ‘Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee.’ … And God made a man, and breathed into him the breath of life, and God would not have known him to be a man in the womb, unless he were whole: ‘and before thou camest out of the womb, I sanctified thee.’ ”

The Prophet Jeremiah, by Piero della Francesca, 1452-66, in the church of St Francis in Arezzo.
And likewise, in St Ambrose’s highly influential commentary on the Gospel of Luke (1.33): “There is no doubt that this promise of the Angel is true; for indeed, Saint John, before he was born, while still in his mother’s womb, showed the grace of the Spirit received. For when neither his father nor his mother had done any wonders, leaping in the womb of his mother, he proclaimed the good tidings of the coming of the Lord to his mother. For thus do you read, that when the mother of the Lord had come to Elizabeth, she said to Her, ‘For behold as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.’ For he had not yet the spirit (i.e. breath) of life, but the spirit of grace. And then, we have also been able to note elsewhere that the grace of sanctification precedes the essence of living, since the Lord saith, ‘Before thou camest forth from the womb, I sanctified thee, and set thee as a prophet among the nations.’ ”

The Gradual is one of only two in the historical corpus [1] of the Roman Missal whose texts are taken from the Gospels, the other being that of the feast of John the Evangelist. This acknowledges the unique roles that the two Saints John played in Our Lord’s life on this earth, and perhaps also reflects the fact that they share the dedication of the cathedral of Rome with Him. Both graduals are in the fifth mode, but their music is different.

Graduale Fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen erat Joannes. V. Hic venit, ut testimonium perhibéret de lúmine, paráre Dómino plebem perfectam. (There was a man sent by God, whose name was John. V. This man came to bear witness concerning the light, to prepare for the Lord a perfect people.)

The Gospel, Luke 1, 5-17, is titled in the Missal “The beginning of the Holy Gospel according to Luke”, since the first four verses, which are not traditionally read in the Roman Rite, are treated as a prologue. This part explains who John’s parents were, and tells us of their childlessness and of the Angel’s words to Zachariah when he appears to him in the temple. However, the second part, verses 18-25, which narrates Zachariah’s doubt and punishment, and the actual conception, is not read. Beginning in the Carolingian era, the Nativity of the Baptist was celebrated with two Masses, one at dawn and one during the day, which are analogous to the second and third Masses of Christmas. Luke 1, 18-25 was historically read as the Gospel of the dawn Mass, but disappeared from the Roman Rite when that Mass fell out of use. In the post-Conciliar lectionary, these verses have been restored to the lectionary, not in connection with the Birth of St John, but in Advent, on December 19th when that day is a feria.

The so-called Leonine Sacramentary contains a special preface for the vigil, a shortened version of which is found in many manuscripts of the Gregorian sacramentary and in the traditional Ambrosian rite; here is the older Leonine form.

VD: exhibentes sollemne jejunium, quo beati Johannis baptistae natalicia praevenimus. Cujus genitor et verbi Dei nuntium dubitans nasciturum vocis est privatus officio, et eodem recepit nascente sermonem; quique Angelo promittente dum non credit obmutuit, magnifici praeconis exortu et loquens factus est et profeta: materque pariter sterilis aevoque confecta non solum puerperio fecunda processit, sed etiam, quo beatae Mariae fructum sedula voce benedictione susciperet, spiritu divinitatis impleta est; ipseque progenitus, utpote viae caelestis adsertor, viam domino monuit praeparari, seraque in suprema parentum aetate concretus et editus, procreandum novissimis temporibus humani generis disseruit redemptorem.

Truly it is worthy… holding the solemn fast, by which we anticipate the birth of blessed John the Baptist. Whose father, when he doubted the message of God’s word that he was to be born, was deprived of the use of his voice, and received it back when he was born; who grew silent when he did not believe the Angel’s promise, but at the birth of the glorious herald, gained his speech and became a prophet. And likewise his mother, being sterile and worn by old age, did not only become fruitful in childbearing, but was also filled with the Holy Spirit, so that she might receive the fruit of the Blessed Mary with a blessing with eager voice. And himself that was begotten, as the one who shows the way to heaven, urged that the way of the Lord be prepared, and being lately conceived and brought forth in the last age of his parents, proclaimed that the Redeemer of the human race would be born in the last times.

[1] The graduals of two very late Masses, both promulgated by Pope Pius XI, also take their text from the Gospels, those of St Thérèse of Lisieux (1925) and the votive Mass of Christ the Eternal High Priest (1935).

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