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John the Baptist: Fire and Hope

His message was, to say the least, a little scary. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (…) Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Okay: make that very scary!

But for all its scariness, John the Baptist’s message is filled with hope, the hope of a new world, a new way of looking at life, a new salvation. He came, after all, to prepare the way for Jesus. He came out of the desert, a strange, lonely, and no doubt frightening figure, to bring the world the greatest news it ever received.

As we read in St. Luke’s gospel on St. John the Baptist’s feast day, the announcement of John’s birth—and the event itself—is tremendously important, especially as it runs parallel to the same occurrences in Jesus’ life. There’s no other saint who has separate liturgical celebrations of both his birth and his death!

In the Eastern tradition, John is known not as “the Baptist” but as “the Forerunner,” the one who prepared the way and who in fact sent away his own followers who became Jesus’ first disciples. He was in essence the last of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, with a message of turning away from selfishness and embracing God. In a way John is a bridge between prophetic revelation and Jesus.

John preached words that are also precursors to what Jesus had to say: when people asked him what they should do, he was clear: “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none,” he said. “And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors—the most hated individuals of the time—asked him for counsel, and he replied, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”

As soon as John baptized Jesus he deliberately moved back into obscurity; his role had been fulfilled. Murdered later by Herod, John became a popular saint in the early Church: there were fifteen churches dedicated to him in Constantinople along.

His feast-day is assigned exactly six months before the nativity of Christ, since John was six months older than the Lord. As soon as the Feast of Christmas was established in the fifth century, the date of the Baptist’s birth was assigned to June 24. In 506, the Council of Agde listed the Nativity of Saint John among the highest feasts of the year.

And it’s a popular celebration!

All over Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, and from Ireland to Russia, Saint John’s Day festivities are closely associated with the ancient nature lore of the great summer festival of pre-Christian times. Fires are lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his feast. These “Saint John’s fires” burn brightly and quietly along the fiords of Norway, on the peaks of the Alps, on the slopes of the Pyrenees, and on the mountains of Spain.

 Fishermen from Brittany keep this custom even while far out at sea in the Arctic Ocean. They hoist a barrel filled with castoff clothing to the tip of the mainsail yard and set the contents on fire. All ships of the fishing fleet light up at the same time, about eight o’clock in the evening. The men gather around the mast, pray and sing.

 Another custom is that of lighting many small fires in the valleys and plains. People gather around, jump through the flames, and sing traditional songs in praise of the saint or of summer.

(Francis X. Weiser, S.J.: Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs)

Throughout Europe, there are fireworks, dances, and feasting. In Italy, fried pastries coated with honey called origliette are served. In many places it’s a tradition to gather a perennial herb called St. John’s Wort that can be used in a tea or a tincture for medicinal purposes (it’s also said to drive evil spirits away!). In Poland, flowers are made into wreaths and floated down the river in honor of Christ’s baptism by St. John in the Jordan.

In some places it’s customary to eat strawberries (Our Lady is said to accompany children who pick strawberries on St. John’s Day). In Sweden, pickled herring, boiled potatoes, sour cream, crisp bread, beer, and schnapps are enjoyed. Spanish celebrations involve figs and a savory pie made with tuna. In Ireland, “goody” (white bread broken in pieces and boiled with milk, sugar, and spice) is a feast-day specialty.

In France, the celebration is called Feux de la Saint-Jean: young unmarried people have to jump over the bonfire if they want to find their soulmate before the end of the year; and the festivities always end with a dance. And in Québec, it’s an official holiday with parades.

Why not start a St. John’s Day tradition of your own? Light a fire (it can be a candle if necessary!), perhaps read from today’s Gospel, and pray to St. John for his intercession that the summer may be blessed in homes, fields, and family; and then it’s time for feasting! You can also create beautiful wreaths to hang in your home (and replace next year as part of your celebration).

Happy St. John the Baptist day!

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 O God who has made this an honored day for us by the birth of St. John: bestow upon thy people the grace of spiritual joys, and guide the hearts of all thy faithful into the way of eternal salvation.

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