Feast of John the Baptist: East and West come together to celebrate the Forerunner of Jesus

An Eastern Orthodox Christian interpretation of the Nativity of John. Note Zechariah in the lower right corner, writing, "His name is John." Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

An Eastern Orthodox Christian interpretation of the Nativity of John. Note Zechariah in the lower right corner, writing, “His name is John.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JUNE 24: An unparalleled human birth is celebrated across the Eastern and Western Christian Church today, on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Or, in Eastern churches and communities around the world, many call this the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner.

Wikipedia has more on the Nativity. And, Catholics can find all of the Bible readings for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist online now, thanks to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Virtually all saints are commemorated on the day of their death—the day of entrance into heaven—except for St. John the Baptist and Jesus’s mother Mary. Christians also mark Jesus’s Nativity. But these Nativity feasts are exceptional customs intended for figures the Christian church traditionally believes were born without sin.

John also holds special status because the celebration of his birth has such ancient roots. Unlike many newer Christian holidays, John’s birth has been celebrated since the early centuries of Christianity. Why? In part because his birth is detailed in the Christian Bible. His birth became a first step in foretelling the coming of Jesus.

Care to read the entire story? You will find it only in the Gospel of Luke and, while the Catholic readings listed above contain part of the gospel story, here is the entire account which extends from Luke 1 verse 5 through 80. The passage contains some of the most beautiful and widely repeated lines in the New Testament, including Mary’s own hymn of praise.

AN ASCETIC FORETELLS THE KINGDOM

Years passed, and John became an ascetic in the desert before announcing the coming of the Kingdom, calling all people to undergo a reformation. John announced his purpose as being solely to prepare the way for a Messiah. Hundreds came to the banks of the Jordan River, including Jesus, whom John immediately recognized. John sent all of his followers to Jesus, insisting that “He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease.” Some interpret John’s statement as indicating the cycles of the sun and, therefore, cuing its proximity to summer solstice; Augustine explained that John’s observance falls close to the summer solstice because Jesus’ falls close to the winter solstice. Both are festivals of light, and bonfires on St. John’s Eve have been a popular custom for millennia.

PAGANS & CHRISTIANS & St. John’s Fire

If you read Danish, or simply want to see the full-size bonfire photo, check out coverage of this year's St. John Eve in the Danish newspaper Borsen.

If you read Danish, or simply want to see the full-size bonfire photo, check out coverage of this year’s St. John Eve in the Danish newspaper Borsen.

In many communities around the world, St. John’s Eve still is greeted with St. John’s Fire. If that reminds you of pagan customs associated with the Solstice, then you’ve got a talent for cultural anthropology. Think about the ancient origins of the St. John the Baptist Nativity holiday, and its placement on a fixed date close to the Solstice, and the resulting Christian-Pagan friction across Europe is not surprising.

In a recent Scientific American column, Maria Konnikova reports on the diverse array of customs surrounding the Solstice. Among them is St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Fire. She writes: “With the rise of Christianity and accompanying threat to pagan traditions, the summer solstice became celebrated in many parts of Europe as the day of St. John the Baptist—St. John’s Eve in Denmark, the Feast of St. John in France, the festival of St. John the Baptist in Spain, Ivan Kupala Day in Russia.”

Across the U.S., customs vary widely so check your local news media. A news report from northern Kentucky says that Episcopal churches in that region plan to combine their Monday evening liturgies for St. John’s Nativity at a central location. In California, the San Juan Bautista Mission is combining St. John’s Nativity with a fiesta to recall the early Hispanic settlers who built the mission. Of course, you will find the most lively observances in parishes named for St. John the Baptist.

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(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

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