Skip to comments.[Catholic Caucus] The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (Gueranger)
Posted on 06/23/2018 9:58:50 PM PDT by CMRosary
The Voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; behold thy God!” Oh! in this world of ours grown now so cold, who can understand earth’s transports at hearing these glad tidings so long expected? The promised God was not yet manifested; but already have the heavens bowed down to make way for his passage. No longer was he “the One who is to come,” he for whom our fathers, the illustrious saints of the prophetic age ceaselessly called, in their indomitable hope. Still hidden, indeed, but already in our midst, he was resting beneath that virginal cloud compared with which, the heavenly purity of Thrones and Cherubim wax dim; yea, the united fires of burning Seraphim grow faint, in presence of the single love wherewith she alone encompasses him in her human heart, she that lowly daughter of Adam whom he had chosen for his mother. Our accursed earth, made suddenly more blessed far than yonder heaven so long inexorably closed to suppliant prayer, awaited only that the august mystery should be revealed; the hour was come for earth to join her canticles to that eternal and divine praise, which henceforth was ever rising from her depths, and which being itself no other than the Word Himself, would celebrate God condignly. But beneath the veil of humility where his divinity, even after as well as before his birth, must still continue to hide itself from men, who may discover the Emmanuel? who, having recognized him in his merciful abasements, may succeed in making him accepted by a world lost in pride? who may cry, pointing out the Carpenter’s Son, in the midst of the crowd: Behold Him whom your fathers have so wistfully awaited!
For such is the order decreed from on high, in the manifestation of the Messias. Conformably to the ways of men, the God-Man would not intrude himself into public life; he would await, for the inauguration of his divine ministry, some man who having preceded him in a similar career, would be hereby sufficiently accredited, to introduce him to the people.
Sublime part for a creature to play, to stand guarantee for his God, witness for the Word! The exalted dignity of him who was to fill such a position, had been notified, as had that of the Messias, long before his birth. In the solemn liturgy of the Age of types, the Levite choir, reminding the Most High of the meekness of David and of the promise made to him of a glorious heir, hailed from afar the mysterious lamp prepared by God for his Christ. Not that, to give light to his steps, Christ should stand in need of external help: he, the Splendor of the Father, had only to appear in these dark regions of ours, to fill them with the effulgence of the very heavens; but so many false glimmerings had deceived mankind, during the night of these ages of expectation, that had the true Light arisen on a sudden, it would not have been understood, or would have but blinded eyes now become well nigh powerless, by reason of protracted darkness, to endure its brilliancy. Eternal Wisdom therefore decreed that just as the rising sun is announced by the morning-star, and prepares his coming by the gently tempered brilliancy of aurora; so Christ, who is Light should be preceded here below by a star, his precursor; and his approach be signalized by the luminous rays which he himself (though still invisible) would shed around this faithful herald of his coming. When, in by-gone days, the Most High vouchsafed to light up, before the eyes of his prophets, the distant future, that radiant flash which for an instant shot across the heavens of the old covenant, melted away in the deep night, and ushered not in as yet the longed-for dawn. The “morning-star” of which the psalmist sings shall know naught of defeat: declaring unto night that all is now over with her, he will dim his own fires only in the triumphant splendor of the Sun of Justice. Even as aurora melts into day, so will he confound with Light Increated, his own radiance; being of himself, like every creature, nothingness and darkness, he will so reflect the brilliancy of the Messias Shining immediately upon him, that many will mistake him even for the very Christ.
The mysterious conformity of Christ and his Precursor, the incomparable proximity which unites one to the other, are to be found many times marked down in the sacred scriptures. If Christ is the Word, eternally uttered by the Father he is to be the Voice bearing this divine utterance whithersoever it is to reach; Isaias already hears the desert echoing with these accents, till now unknown; and the prince of prophets expresses his joy, with all the enthusiasm of a soul already beholding itself in the very presence of its Lord and God. The Christ is the Angel of the Covenant; but in the very same text wherein the Holy Ghost gives Him this title, for us so full of hope, there appears likewise bearing the same name of angel, the inseparable messenger, the faithful ambassador, to whom the earth is indebted for her coming to know the Spouse: Behold, I send my angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face. And presently the Lord whom ye seek, and the Angel of the testament whom you desire, shall come to his Temple; behold he cometh, saith the Lord of hosts. And putting an end to the prophetic ministry, of which he is the last representative, Malachias terminates his own oracles by the words which we have heard Gabriel addressing to Zachary, when he makes known to him the approaching birth of the Precursor.
The presence of Gabriel, on this occasion, of itself shows with what intimacy with the Son of God, this child then promised shall be favored; for the very same Prince of the heavenly hosts came again, soon afterwards, to announce the Emmanuel. Countless are the faithful messengers that press around the throne of the Holy Trinity, and the choice of these august ambassadors usually varies according to the dignity of the instructions to be transmitted to earth by the Most High. Nevertheless, it was fitting that the same archangel charged with concluding the sacred Nuptials of the Word with the Human Nature, should likewise prelude this great mission by preparing the coming of him whom the eternal decrees had designated as the Friend of the Bridegroom. Six months later, on his deputation to Mary, he strengthens his divine message, by revealing to that purest of Virgins, the prodigy, which had by then already given a son to the sterile Elizabeth; this being the first step of the Almighty towards a still greater marvel. John is not yet born; but without longer delay, his career is begun: he is employed to attest the truth of the angel’s promises. How ineffable this guarantee of a child hidden as yet in his mother’s womb, but already brought forward as God’s witness, in that sublime negotiation which at that moment is holding heaven and earth in suspense! Illumined from on high, Mary receives the testimony and hesitates no longer. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, says she to the archangel, be it done unto me, according to thy word.
Gabriel has retired, bearing away with him the divine secret which he has not been commissioned to reveal to the rest of the world. Neither will the most prudent Virgin herself tell it; even Joseph, her virginal Spouse, is to receive no communication of the mystery from her lips. Yet fear not; the woeful sterility beneath which earth has been so long groaning is not to be followed by an ignorance more sorrow-stricken still, now that it has yielded its fruit. There is one from whom Emmanuel will have no secret, nor reserve; it were fitting to reveal the marvel unto him. Scarce has the Spouse taken possession of the sanctuary all spotless wherein the nine months of his first abiding amongst men, must run their course, yea, scarce has the Word been made Flesh, than Our Lady, inwardly taught what is her Son’s desire, arising makes all haste to speed into the hill country of Judea. The voice of my Beloved! Behold he cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. His first visit is to the “Friend of the Bridegroom,” the first out-pour of his graces is to John. A distinct feast will allow us to honor in a special manner the precious day on which the divine Child, sanctifying his Precursor, reveals himself to John by the voice of Mary; the day on which Our Lady, manifested by John, leaping within the womb of his mother, proclaims at last the wondrous things operated within her by the Almighty, according to the merciful promise which he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.
But the time is come when the good tidings are to spread, from children and mothers, through all the adjacent country, until at length they reach the whole world. John is about to be born, and while still himself unable to speak, he is to loosen his father’s tongue. He is to put an end to that dumbness with which the aged priest, a type of the old law, had been struck by the angel; and Zachary, himself filled with the Holy Ghost, is about to publish in a new canticle, the blessed visit of the Lord God of Israel.
The chants of Holy Church in honor of the Precursor’s Nativity have fairly begun; and already everything about the feast is telling us that it is one of those solemnities dearest to the heart of the Bride. But what would it be, if going back to the good days of yore, we were able to take our share in the olden manifestations of Catholic instinct on this day! In those grand ages wherein popular piety followed with docile step the inspiration of the one Mother Church, such demonstrations suggested by a common faith, on the recurrence of each loved anniversary, kept alive in every breast, the understanding of the divine Work and its mystic harmonies, thus gorgeously displayed on the cycle. Nowadays, when the liturgical spirit has fallen to a lower standard in the minds of the multitude, the Catholic verve, which used to urge on the mass of the people, is no longer felt in the same marked way. Left to itself, and hence without unity of view, popular devotion but too often lacks justness of proportion: nevertheless, these regrettable inconsistencies cannot impair the spirit of piety itself ever inherent in Holy Church; she is ever guided aright by the Spirit of Prayer that is within her; she ever holds the sure hand of her unerring authority on all the varieties of pious demonstrations of a non-liturgical character, as well as on the diminutions of the former solemnity of her own sacred rites; hence she is ever on the watch to prevent her maternal condescension becoming a pretext for opening the way to error. We are far, however, from the days when two rival armies meeting face to face on St. John’s Eve, would put off the battle till the morrow of the feast [q.v., The Battle of Fontenay, Saturday, 25th June, 841]. In England, though no longer kept as a day of obligation, the feast of St. John is still marked in the Calendar as a double of first class with an octave; and gives place to no other, save to the festival of Corpus Christi: it is, moreover, a “day of devotion,” and continues thus to attract the attention of the Faithful, as one of the more important feasts of the year.
Another festival is yet to come, at the end of August, calling for our renewed homage to the son of Zachary and Elizabeth; the feast, that is to say, of his glorious martyrdom. But ”venerable” as it has every right to be in our eyes (so the Church expresses herself in the Collect on that day), its splendor is not to be compared with that of this present festival. The reason is because this day relates less to John himself than to Jesus, whom he is announcing; whereas the feast of the Decollation, though more personal to our Saint, has not in the divine plan that same importance which his Birth had, inasmuch as it preludes that of the Son of God.
There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist, are the words to be spoken by the Man-God of his Precursor; and already has Gabriel, when announcing both of them, declared the same thing of each, that he shall be great. But the greatness of Jesus is that He shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the greatness of John is that he shall go before Him. The name of John brought down from heaven, like that of his Master, proclaims the grace which Jesus, by saving mankind, is to bring to the world. Jesus who cometh front above in person, is above all it is He and He alone whom all mankind is expecting; John who is of earth, on the contrary, hath nothing but what he hath received; but he hath received to be the friend of the Bridegroom, his usher; so that the Bridegroom cometh not to the Bride, but by him.
Yea, the Bride even cannot come to know herself, nor to prepare herself for the sacred nuptials, but by him: his preaching awakens her, in the wilderness; he adorns her with the charms of penitence and all virtues; his hand, in the one baptism, at last unites her to Christ beneath the waters. Sublime moment! in which, raised far above all men and angels, John, in the midst of the Holy Trinity, as it were, in virtue of an authority that is his, invests the Second Person Incarnate with a new title; the Father and the Holy Ghost acting the while, in concert with him! But presently, coming down from those lofty heights, more than human, to which his mission had raised him, he is fain to disappear altogether: the Bride is become the Bridegroom’s own; the joy therefore of John is full, his work is done; he has now but to efface himself and to decrease. To Jesus here manifested, it henceforth alone belongs to appear and to increase. Thus too, the day-star, from the feast of John’s Nativity when he beams his rays upon us in all his splendor, will begin to decline from the heights of his solstice, towards the horizon; whereas Christmas will give him signal to return, to resume that upward movement which progressively restores all his fiery effulgence.
Verily, Jesus alone is Light, the Light without which earth would remain dead; and John is but the man sent from God, without whom the Light would have remained unknown. But Jesus being inseparable from John, even as day is from aurora, it is by no means astonishing that earth’s gladness at John’s birth should partake of something of that excited by the coming of our Redeemer. Up to the fifteenth century, the Latin Church, together with the Greeks who still continue the custom, celebrated, in the month of September, a feast called the conception of the Precursor; not that his conception was in itself holy, but because it announced the beginning of mysteries. Just in the same way, the Nativity of Saint John Baptist indeed made holy, is celebrated with so much pomp merely because it seems to enfold within itself the Nativity of Christ, our Redeemer. It is as it were Midsummer’s “Christmas Day.” From the very onset, God and his Church brought about, with most delicate care, many such parallel resemblances and dependences between these two solemnities. These we are now about to study.
God, who in his Providence seeks in all things the glorification of His Word made Flesh, estimates men and centuries by the measure of testimony they render to Christ; and this is why John is so great. For, Him whom the Prophets announced as about to come, whom the Apostles preached as already come, John, at once prophet and apostle, pointed out with his finger, exclaiming “Behold, this is He!” John, being then the witness by excellence, it is fitting that he should open that glorious period during which, for three centuries, the Church was to render to her Spouse that testimony of blood, whereby the Martyrs, after the Prophets and Apostles, whereon she is built up, hold the first claim to her gratitude. Just as Eternal Wisdom had decreed that the tenth and last great struggle of that epoch, should be forever linked with the Birthday of the Son of God whose triumph it secured, by the memory of the Martyrs of Nicomedia on the 25th of December, 303; so likewise does John’s birthday mark the beginning of the first of those giant contests. For the 24th of June in the Roman Martyrology is sacred likewise to the memory of those soldiers of Christ, who first entered upon the arena opened to them by pagan Rome in the year 64. After the proclamation of the Nativity of the Precursor, the Church’s record runs thus: “At Rome the memory of many holy Martyrs who under the Emperor Nero being calumniously accused of setting fire to the city, were at the command of the same, most cruelly put to death by divers torments; some of whom were sown up in beasts’ skins and so exposed to be torn by dogs; others crucified; others set on fire, so that at the decline of day they might serve as torches to light up the night. All these were disciples of the Apostles; and first fruits of the Martyrs offered to the Lord by the Roman Church, the fertile field of Martyrs, even before the death of the Apostles.”
The solemnity of the 24th of June, therefore, throws a double light on the early days of Christianity. There never were even then, days evil enough for the Church to belie the prediction of the Angel, that many should rejoice in the birth of John; together with joy, his word, his example, his intercession brought courage to the Martyrs. After the triumph won by the Son of God over pagan negation; when to the testimony of blood succeeded that of confession by works and praise, John maintained his part as Precursor of Christ in souls. Guide of monks, he conducts them far from the world, and fortifies them in the combats of the desert; Friend of the Bridegroom, he continues to form the Bride, by preparing unto the Lord a perfect people.
In the divers states and degrees of the Christian life, his ever needful and beneficent influence makes itself felt. At the beginning of the fourth Gospel, in the most dogmatic passage of the New Testament, not by mere accident is John brought forward, even as heretofore at Jordan, as one closely united with the operations of the Adorable Trinity, in the universal economy of the Divine Incarnation: There was a man sent from God whose name was John, saith the Holy Ghost; he came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all might believe through him. “Precursor at his birth, Precursor at his death, St. John still continues,” says St. Ambrose, “to march in front, before the Lord. More perhaps than we are aware of, may his mysterious action be telling on this present life of ours. When we begin to believe in Christ, there comes forth virtue, as it were, from St. John, drawing us after him: he inclines the steps of the soul towards faith; he rectifies the crooked ways of life, making straight the road of our earthly pilgrimage, lest we stray into the rugged wilds of error; he contrives so, that all our valleys be filled with the fruits of virtue, and that every elevation be brought low before the Lord.”
But if the Precursor maintains his part in each progressive movement of faith which brings souls nearer to Christ, he intervenes still more markedly in each baptism conferred, whereby the Bride gains increase. The baptistry is especially consecrated to him. It is true, the baptism which he gave to the crowds pressing day by day, on Jordan’s banks, had never power such as Christian baptism possesses; but when he plunged the Man-God beneath the waters, they were endowed with a virtue of fecundity emanating directly from Christ, whereby they would be empowered until the end of time to complete, by the accession of new members, the Body of Holy Church united to Christ.
The faith of our fathers never ignored the great benefits for which both individuals and nations are indebted to Saint John. So many neophytes received his name in baptism, so efficacious was the aid afforded by him in conducting his clients to sanctity, that there is not a day in the Calendar on which there may not be honored the heavenly birthday of one or other so named. Amongst nations, the Lombards formerly claimed Saint John as Patron, and French Canada does the same nowadays. But whether in East or West, who could count the countries, towns, religious families, abbeys, and churches placed under this same powerful patronage: from the temple which, under Theodosius, replaced that of the ancient Serapis in Alexandria with its famous mysteries, to the sanctuary raised upon the ruins of the altar of Apollo, on the summit of Monte Cassino, by the Patriarch of monks; from the fifteen churches which Byzantium, the new Rome, consecrated within her walls in honor of the Precursor, to the august Basilica of Lateran, well worthy of its epithet, the golden Basilica, and which in the Capital of Christendom remains forever Mother and Mistress of all churches, not alone of the City, but of the whole world! Dedicated at first to our Savior, this latter Basilica added at an early date another title which seems inseparable from this sacred name, that of the Friend of the Bridegroom. Saint John the Evangelist, also a “friend of Jesus,” whose precious death is placed by one tradition on the Twenty-fourth day of June, has likewise had his name added to the other two borne by this Basilica; but all the same, it is nonetheless certain that common practice is in keeping with ancient documents, in referring, as it does, more especially to the Precursor, the title of Saint John Lateran, whereby the patriarchal Basilica of the Roman Pontiffs is always designated in these days.
“Fitting it was,” says Saint Peter Damian “that the authority of the Bride should subscribe to the judgment of the Bridegroom, and that this latter should see his greatest Friend raised in glory there, where she is enthroned as queen. A remarkable choice is this, to be sure, whereby John is given the primacy, in the very city that is consecrated by the glorious death of the two lights of the world. Peter from his cross, Paul beneath the blade, both behold the first place held by another; Rome is clad in the purple of innumerable martyrs, and yet all her honors go straight to the blessed Precursor. Everywhere John is the greatest!”
On this day, therefore, let us too imitate Mother Church; let us avoid that obliviousness which bespeaks ingratitude; let us hail, with thanksgiving and heartfelt gladness, the arrival of him who promises our Savior unto us. Yea, already Christmas is announced. On the Lateran Piazza (or Square), the faithful Roman people will keep vigil tonight, awaiting the hour which will allow the eve’s strict fast and abstinence to be broken, when they may give themselves up to innocent enjoyment, the prelude of those rejoicings wherewith, six months hence, they will be greeting the Emmanuel.
Saint John’s Vigil is no longer of precept, in a great many Churches. Formerly, however, not one day’s fasting only, but an entire quarantine was observed at the approach of the Nativity of the Precursor, resembling in its length and severity that of the Advent of our Lord! The more severe had been the holy exactions of the preparation, the more prized and the better appreciated would be the festival. After seeing the penance of Saint John’s fast equaled to the austerity of that preceding Christmas, it is not surprising to behold the Church in her Liturgy making the two Nativities closely resemble one another, to a degree that would be apt to stagger the limping faith of many a one nowadays.
The Nativity of Saint John was celebrated by three Masses, just as is that of Him whom he made known to the Bride: the first, in the dead of night, commemorated his title of Precursor; the second, at daybreak, honored the Baptism he conferred; the third, at the hour of Tierce, hailed his sanctity. The preparation of the Bride, the consecration of the Bridegroom, his own peerless holiness; a threefold triumph, which at once linked the servant to the Master, and deserved the homage of a triple sacrifice to God the Thrice-Holy, manifested to John in the plurality of His Persons, and revealed by him to the Church. In like manner, as there were formerly two Matins on Christmas Night, so in many places was there a double office celebrated on the feast of Saint John, as Durandus of Mende, following Honorious of Autun, informs us. The first Office began at the decline of day; it was without Alleluia, in order to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets which lasted up to Saint John. The second office, begun in the middle of the night, terminated at dawn; this was sung with Alleluia, to denote the opening of the time of grace and of the kingdom of God.
Joy, which is the characteristic of this Feast, outstripped the limits of the sacred precincts and shed itself abroad, as far even as the infidel Mussulmans. Though at Christmas, the severity of the season necessarily confined to the domestic hearth all touching expansion of private piety, the lovely summer nights, at Saint John’s tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. In this way, the people seemed to make up for what circumstances prevented in the way of demonstrations to the Infant God, by the glad honors they could render to the cradle of his Precursor. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away, than all the world over, from the far East to the furthest West, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain top; and in an instant, every town and village and smallest hamlet was lighted up. “Saint John’s fires,” as they called them, were an authentic testimony, repeating over and over again the truth of the words of the Angel and of prophecy, whereby that universal gladness was announced which would hail the Birth day of Elizabeth’s son. Like to a burning and shining light, to use the expression of our Lord, he had appeared in the midst of endless night, and for a time, the Synagogue was willing to rejoice in his light; but disconcerted by his fidelity which prevented him from giving himself out as the Christ and the true Light, irritated at the sight of the Lamb that he pointed out as the salvation of the whole world, and not of Israel alone, the Synagogue had presently turned back again into night, and had drawn across her own eyes that fatal bandage which suffers her to remain, up to this day, in her sad darkness. Filled with gratitude to him who had neither wished to diminish nor to deceive the Bride, the gentile world, on her side, exalted him all the more for his having lowered himself; gathering together and applying to herself those sentiments which ought to have animated the repudiated Synagogue, she was fain to manifest by all means in her power, that without confounding the borrowed light of the Precursor with that of the Sun of Justice Himself, she nonetheless hailed with enthusiasm this light which had been to the entire human race a very aurora of nuptial gladness.
It may almost be said of the “Saint John’s fires,” that they date, like the festival itself, from the very beginning of Christianity. They made their appearance, at least, from the earliest days of the period of peace, like a sample fruit of popular initiative; but not indeed without sometimes exciting the anxious attention of the Fathers and of Councils, ever on the watch to banish every superstitious notion from manifestations, which otherwise so happily began to replace the pagan festivities proper to the solstices. But the necessity of combating some abuses, which are just as possible in our own days as in those, did not withhold the Church from encouraging a species of demonstration which so well answered to the very character of the feast. “Saint John’s fires” made a happy completion to the liturgical solemnity; testifying how one and the same thought possessed both the mind of Holy Church and of the terrestrial city; for the organisation of these rejoicings originated with the civil corporations and the expenses thereof were defrayed by the municipalities. Thus the privilege of lighting the bonfire was usually reserved to some dignitary of the civil order. Kings themselves taking part in the common merry-making would esteem it an honour to give this signal to popular gladness; Louis XIV, as late as 1648, for example, lighted the bonfire on the “place de Grève,” as his predecessors had done. In other places, as is even now done in Catholic Brittany, the clergy were invited to bless the piles of wood, and to cast thereon the first brand; whilst the crowd, bearing flaming torches, would disperse over the neighboring country, amidst the ripening crops, or would march along the ocean side, following the tortuous cliff-paths, shouting many a gladsome cry, to which the adjacent islets would reply by lighting up their festive fires.
In some parts, the custom prevailed of rolling a “burning wheel;” this was a self-revolving red-hot disk that, rolling along the streets or down from the hill-tops, represented the movement of the sun, which attains the highest point in his orbit, to begin at once his descent; thus was the word of the Precursor brought to mind, when speaking of the Messias, he says: He must increase, and I must decrease. The symbolism was completed by the custom then in vogue, of burning old bones and rubbish on this day which proclaims the end of the Ancient Law, and the commencement of the New Covenant, according to the holy Scripture, where it is written: … And new store coming on, you shall cast away the old.
Blessed are those populations amongst whom is still preserved something of such customs, whence the old simplicity of our forefathers drew a gladness assuredly more true and more pure than their descendants seek in festivities wherein the soul has no part!
To the Office of Lauds, on this day, a special importance is to be attached, because the Canticle Benedictus, which is sung during Lauds all the year round, is the very expression itself of the sentiments inspired by the Holy Ghost to the father of Saint John the Baptist, on the occasion of that Birthday which gave joy both to God and man. Wherefore, being unable to insert the entire Office, we give at least this Canticle which will be found below, after the Hymns for Matins and Lauds, composed by Paul the Deacon, and forming the sequel to that already given above, for Vespers. The Antiphons, Capitulum, and Versicle used at Lauds are the same as those marked, further on, for second Vespers.
The Hymn and the three Psalms of which the Office of Tierce is composed, are to be found here.
The Capitulum is the same as in First Vespers.
MASS.—The Mass is composed of diverse passages from the Old and New Testaments. The Church, as liturgical authors say, wishes hereby to remind us that John forms the link binding together both Testaments, he himself sharing in each. He is the precious clasp, which fastens the double mantle of Law and of Grace, across the breast of the eternal Pontiff.
The Introit is from Isaias; the text from which it is taken will occur again, and at greater length, in our Epistle. The Psalm formerly chanted with it is the 91st, the first verse alone of which is now used, although the primary motive of this choice lay in its following verse and in its thirteenth: It is good … to shew forth thy mercy in the morning, and thy truth in the night: … The just shall flourish like the palm tree; he shall grow up like the cedar of Libanus.
The Collect gathers together the desires of the Faithful, upon this day, which is so great because hallowed by the birth of the Precursor. The voice of the Church implores herein an abundance of spiritual joy, which is the grace peculiar to this feast, as we learn from the very words of Gabriel. Bearing in mind the special part allotted to Zachary’s son, which consists in setting in order the paths of salvation the Church prays that not one of her Christian children may turn aside from the Way of Life Eternal.
Isaias, in these few lines, has directly in view the announcing of Christ; the application here made by the Church to Saint John Baptist once more shows us how closely the Messias is united with his Precursor in the work of the Redemption. Rome, once capital of the gentile world, now Mother of Christendom, delights in proclaiming, on this day, to the sons whom the Spouse has given her, the consoling prophecy which was addressed to them of yore, before she herself was founded upon the seven hills. Eight hundred years before the birth of John and of the Messias a voice had been heard on Sion, and, reaching beyond the frontiers of Jacob, had re-echoed along those distant coasts where sin’s darkness held mankind in the thraldom of hell: Give ear, ye islands; and hearken, ye people from afar! It was the Voice of Him who was to come, and of the Angel deputed to walk before him, the voice of John and of the Messias, proclaiming the one predestination, common to them both, which as servant and as Master, made them to be objects of the self-same eternal decree. And this voice, after having hailed the privilege which would designate each (though so diversely) from the maternal womb, as objects of complacency to the Almighty, went on to utter the divinely formulated oracle which was to be promulgated, in other terms, over the cradle of each by the respective ministry of Zachary and of Angels. And he said to me: Thou art my servant Israel, for in thee will I glory, in thee who art indeed Israel to Me; … And he said: It is a small thing that thou shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to convert the dregs of Israel, who will not hearken to thee, and of whom thou shalt bring back but a small remnant. Behold I have given thee to be the Light of the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation even to the farthest part of the earth; to make up for the scant welcome my people shall have given thee, kings shall see, and princes shall rise up, at thy word, and adore for the Lord’s sake, because he is faithful, and for the Holy One of Israel, who hath chosen thee as the negotiator of his alliance.
Children of the Bridegroom, let us enter into this thought of his; let us understand what ought to be the gratitude of us Gentiles to him to whom all flesh is indebted for its knowledge of the Redeemer. From the wilderness, where his voice stung the pride of the descendants of the patriarchs, he beheld us succeeding to the haughty Synagogue; without at all minimising the divine exactions, his stern language when addressed to the Bridegroom’s chosen ones, assumed a tone of considerateness which it never had for the Jews. “Ye offspring of vipers,” said he to these latter, “who hath shown you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits worthy of penance, and do not begin to say, We have Abraham for our Father. For I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For in your case, already is the axe laid to the root of the tree. Every tree, therefore, that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down and cast into the fire.” But to the despised publican, to the hated soldier, to all those parched hearts of the gentile world, hard and arid as the desert rock, John the Baptist announced a flow of grace that would refresh their dried up souls making them fruitful in justice: “Ye publicans, do nothing more than what is appointed you, by the exigencies of the tax laws; ye soldiers, be content with your pay. The Law was given by Moses; but better is grace; grace and truth come by Jesus Christ whom I declare unto you: He it is who taketh away the sins of the world and of His fullness we have all received.”
What a new horizon was here opened out before these objects of reproach, held aloof so long by Israel’s scorn! But in the eyes of the Synagogue, such a blow aimed at Juda’s pretended privilege was a crime. She had borne the biting invectives of this son of Zachary; she had even, at one moment, shown herself ready to hail him as the Christ; but she who vaunted herself as pure, to be invited to go hand in hand with the unclean Gentile,—that she could never brook; it were too much: from that moment, John was judged of, by her, as his Master would afterwards be. Later on, Jesus will insist upon the difference of welcome given to the Precursor by those who listened to him. Yea, he will even make thereof the basis for his sentence of reprobation pronounced against the Jews: “Amen I say to you, that the publicans and harlots shall go into the kingdom of God before you; for John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the publicans and harlots believed him: but you seeing it, did not even afterwards repent, that you might believe him.”
Following in the train of Isaias, who has been prophesying the coming of John and of Christ, Jeremias, the figure of both, stands before us in the Gradual; he too was sanctified in his mother’s womb, and there prepared for the ministry which he was to exercise. The verse leaves the sense suspended, upon an announcement of a word of the Lord; according to the rite formerly in use it was completed by the repetition of the Gradual. The Alleluia Verse is taken from the Gospel. Its words occur in the Benedictus.
After the places hallowed by the sojourn, here below, of the Word made Flesh, there is no spot of greater interest for the Christian soul than that wherein were accomplished the events just mentioned in our Gospel. The town illustrated by the birth of the Precursor is situated about two leagues from Jerusalem, to the west; just as Bethlehem, our Savior’s birthplace, is at the same distance southwards from the Holy City. Going out by the gate of Jaffa, the pilgrim bound for St. John of the Mountain passes on his way the Greek monastery of Holy Cross, raised on the spot where the trees which formed our Lord’s cross were hewn down: then pursuing his course through the close-set woods of the mountains of Juda, he attains a summit whence he can descry the waters of the Mediterranean. The house of Obed-Edom, that for three months harbored the sacred Ark of the Covenant, stood here, whence a by-path leads by a short cut directly to the place where Mary, the true Ark, dwelt for three happy months in the house of her cousin Elizabeth. Two sanctuaries, distant about a thousand paces one from the other, are sacred to the memory of the two great facts just related to us by Saint Luke: in the one, John the Baptist was conceived and born; in the other, the circumcision of the Precursor took place eight days after his birth. The first of these sanctuaries stands on the site of Zachary’s town-house; its present form dates from a period anterior to the Crusades. It is a beautiful church with three naves and a cupola, measuring thirty-seven feet in length. The high Altar is dedicated to St. Zachary, and another altar, on the right, to Saint Elizabeth. On the left, seven marble steps lead to a subterraneous chapel hollowed out of the rock, which is identical with the furthermost apartment of the original house: this is the sanctuary of St. John’s Nativity. Four lamps glimmer in the darkness of this venerable crypt while six others, suspended beneath the altar slab itself, throw light on the following inscription engraved upon the marble pavement: hic præcursor domini natus est. Let us unite, on this day, with the devout sons of Saint Francis, guardians of those ineffable memories; more fortunate here than at Bethlehem with its sacred grotto, they have not to dispute with schism the homage which they pay in the name of the legitimate Bride to the Friend of the Bridegroom upon the very spot of his Nativity.
Local tradition sets at some distance from this first sanctuary, as we have said, the memorable place where the circumcision of the Precursor was performed. Besides a town house, Zachary was owner of another more isolated. Elizabeth had retired thither during the first months of her pregnancy, to taste in silence the gift of God. There did the meeting between herself and Our Lady on her arrival from Nazareth take place; there, the sublime exultation of the Infants and their Mothers; there the Magnificat proclaimed to heaven, that earth henceforth could rival, and even surpass, supernal songs of praise and canticles of love. It was fitting that Zachary’s song, the morning canticle, should be first intoned there, where that of evening had ascended like incense of sweetest fragrance. In the accounts given by ancient pilgrims, it is noticed that there were here two sanctuaries placed one above the other: in the lower one Mary and Elizabeth met; in the upper story of this same country house of Zachary, the greater portion of the facts just set before us by the Church were enacted.
Urban V, in 1368, ordered that the Credo should be chanted on the day of St. John Baptist’s Nativity and during the Octave, to prevent the Precursor’s appearing to be in any way inferior to the Apostles. The more ancient custom, however, of suppressing the Symbol on this feast has nevertheless prevailed: not that it is a mark of inferiority in regard of him who rises above all others that have ever announced the kingdom of God; but to show that he completed his course before the promulgation of the Gospel.
The Offertory is taken from the Introit Psalm; it is the verse which anciently formed the Introit of the Aurora Mass of this feast.
The Secret brings out in strong light the twofold character of Prophet and apostle, which makes John so great; the sacrifice which is being celebrated in his honor is to add new luster to his glory, by placing anew, before our gaze, the Lamb of God, whom he announced and whom he will still point out to the world.
The Bridegroom is in possession of the Bride, and it is John the Baptist who hath prepared the way; thus sings our Communion Antiphon. The moment of the Sacred Mysteries is that in which he repeats every day: He that hath the Bride is the Bridegroom: but the friend of the Bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the Bridegroom’s voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled.
If the Friend of the Bridegroom is overflowing with gladness at this sublime moment of the Mysteries, how shall not the Bride herself be all joy and gratitude? Let her then extol, in the Postcommunion, him who has brought her to know her Redeemer and Lord!
Precursor of the Messias, we share in the joy which thy birth brought to the world. This birth of thine announced that of the Son of God. Now, each year, our Emmanuel assumes anew his life in the Church and in souls; and in our day, just as it was eighteen hundred years ago, he wills that this birth of his shall not take place without thy preparing the way, now as then, for that nativity whereby our Saviour is given to each one of us. Scarce has the sacred cycle completed the series of mysteries whereby the glorification of the Man-God is consummated and the Church is founded, than Christmas begins to appear on the horizon; already, so to speak, does John reveal by exulting demonstrations the approach of our Infant-God. Sweet Prophet of the Most High, not yet canst thou speak, when already thou dost outstrip all the princes of prophecy; but full soon the desert will seem to snatch thee for ever from the commerce of men. Then Advent comes and the Church will show us that she has found thee once more; she will constantly lead us to listen to thy sublime teachings, to hear thee bearing witness unto Him whom she is expecting. From this present moment, therefore, begin to prepare our souls; having descended anew on this our earth, coming as thou now dost, on this day of gladness, as the messenger of the near approach of our Saviour, canst thou possibly remain idle one instant, in face of the immense work which lies before thee to accomplish in us?
To chase sin away, subdue vice, correct the instincts falsified in this poor fallen nature of ours; all this would have been done within us, as indeed it should long ago, had we but responded faithfully to thy past labors. Yet, alas, it is only too true that in the greater number of us, scarce has the first turning of the soil been begun: stubborn clay, wherein stones and briers have defied thy careful toil these many years! We acknowledge it to be so, filled as we are with the confusion of guilty souls; yea, we confess our faults to thee and to Almighty God, as the Church teaches us to do, at the beginning of the great sacrifice; but at the same time, we beseech thee with her to pray to the Lord our God for us. Thou didst proclaim in the desert: From these very stones even, God is still able to raise up children of Abraham. Daily do the solemn formulæ of the Oblation wherein is prepared the ceaselessly renewed immolation of our Saviour tell of the honourable and important part which is thine in this august Sacrifice; thy name, again pronounced while the Divine Victim is present on the Altar, pleads for us sinners to the God of all mercy. Would that, in consideration of thy merits and of our misery, he would deign to be propitious to the persevering prayer of our mother the Church, change our hearts, and in place of evil attachments, attract them to virtue, so as to deserve for us the visit of Emmanuel! At this sacred moment of the Mysteries, when thrice is invoked, in the words of that formula taught us by thyself, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world, he, this very Lamb, will himself have pity upon us and give us peace: peace so precious, with heaven, with earth, with self, which is to prepare us for the Bridegroom by making us become sons of God, according to the testimony which, daily, by the mouth of the priest about to quit the altar, thou continuest to renew. Then, O Precursor, will thy joy and ours be complete; that sacred union, of which this day of thy Nativity already contains for us the gladsome hope, will become even here below and beneath the shadow of faith, a sublime reality, while still awaiting the clear vision of eternity.
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