The nativities of only three people are commemorated in the liturgical calendar, our Lord and his blessed Mother, and St John the Baptist. Used as we are to modern (i.e. post-classical) devotional images, St John the Baptist gets much less of a look-in in the western Church than he used to. A legacy of his former position is retained in the sacred liturgy, however, since in the Confiteor, his name is mentioned immediately after those of Our Lady, and the Archangel Michael: “I confess to Almighty God, to Blessed Mary ever-virgin, to Blessed Michael the Archangel, to Blessed John the Baptist, to the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to our Holy Fathers Augustine and Norbert…”
In eastern iconography, Our Lord is often flanked by Our Lady on one side, and St John on the other.
In mediaeval times, the feast of John’s nativity marked the end of the first half of the year (later, it would be the latest date upon which the feast of Corpus Christi could fall). All the great liturgical cycles of the year occurred in this first-half of the year, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascensiontide, and Whitsuntide, all crowned by Corpus Christi, as if the Christian is being annually led through all the mysteries of his salvation in the first half of the year, that he might spend the other half contemplating it, and preparing for the next cycle. This feast falls in between the midsummer solstice and the feast of Peter and Paul: the great feasts of the last week of June were traditionally marked with great bonfires and festivities throughout the night, taking full advantage of the long, summer nights.
These celebrations are in marked contrast to the start of the year. Six months ago today, it was Christmas eve, and we were shrouded in cold and darkness, awaiting the first flicker of divine light to shine in this fallen world. As it once did on the first day of creation, so does light, but this time, a greater light, illumine the cosmos. Half-a-year later, the Benedictus has special resonance: the Orient on high has come to visit us! At the time of year when the sun is at its highest in the sky, the Son has been lifted up high in our hearts by the contemplation of his mysteries. Truly, then, this is the last day of the Christmas season! Tomorrow, we will begin to prepare ourselves to celebrate his coming once again, in joyful hope of his coming on the clouds in glory.
John the Baptist is held in special regard by the Norbertine Order, and, along with Augustine and Norbert, receives double-mention in our litanies.
The first church of our Order, the House of Poverty at Prémontré, was originally a small chapel dedicated to John the Baptist, that, when looking for a home, St Norbert recognised as a the place God intended for his community. Although the Church itself no longer exists, since the Abbey was confiscated by the godless revolutionary slaves of Beelzebub at the end of the eighteenth-century, we have never forgotten the dedication of our Mother Church, the loss of which is a thorn in the heart of every Norbertine. Prémontré herself has gone, but her spirit, and, we trust, the patronage of her own patron, St John, lives still amongst the communities of her sons and daughters spread throughout the world, who have sought to build their own Houses of Poverty in the desert of this fallen world.
John was the last of the ancient prophets: to him fell the task of pointing out the Messiah. He lived the religious life, since the religious life is something which preempted the Incarnation in the sacred scriptures. It was a form of life taken by the Lord, sanctified, and propagated by the Church. These celibate religious – a way of life which dates back to the time of the prophet Elijah, and possibly even before – lived in expectation of the coming of the Messiah, and, by the time he actually did arrive, they had some idea of the implications: even the holy men of the east were expecting the divine child! John himself was of a priestly family. After all, it was while he was offering incense that his father, Zechariah, received an angelic vision announcing the Precursor. The life of this hieromonk John was steeped in the liturgical spirituality of his religion, and when he sees Jesus, he immediately recognises the immolated lamb on the altar, the lamb which is annually sacrificed to take away the sins of the nation. To his fellow religious and disciples, John points at Jesus, saying: “behold, the Lamb of God!” This is the Lamb that will take our sins away, not those other lambs that we sacrifice in the Temple. This the Lamb of sacrifice that the Father himself has provided.
Along with his biblical name-sake, John the Apostle (whose head reclined on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper, and who stood silently at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady, and became her son, all of which symbolises the contemplative life of the Church), John the Baptist is the patron of religious world-wide, especially contemplative priest-religious.
We cannot forget, either, that the feast of John’s decollation is kept the day after the feast of St Augustine. This summer, we shall be praying especially for the Synod on the Family in the autumn, the aim of which is to find truly good and Christ-centred solutions to the varied difficulties and hardships that many people face in our society. John was decapitated for speaking the truth: my he help guide the synod fathers in their deliberations, and when times of persecution return, as they surely will in our land, may we be given something of his faith and his fortitude, to galvanise each one of us to live, and die, for Christ the Lord.
“It is not I that live, but him that lives in me.”