24 June 2011

Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24)

Happy "Summer Christmas"!  I'm working on a real post for the Nativity of St. John, but for now, here is a passage  from A Yearbook of Seasons and Celebrations by Joanna Bogle. 

Think of the year as a circle.  It may help to draw one on a piece of paper.  At the top, draw a small Christmas tree.  That reminds us of Christmas, the annual feast that marks the birth of Jesus Christ.  This feast is celebrated around the time of the winter solstice--that is to say, the shortest day of the year.  Long ago our pagan ancestors understood some significance in the shortening and lengthening of the days.  They sough to give some meaning to something that they could--correctly--see as symbolic of death and life, of endings and beginnings, perhaps even of some hint of life beyond the grave.  The ancient Romans--whose religious ideas were in general more refined and coherent than those of the lands they conquered--also had feasts connected to the various seasons of the year. 
Christ was born into the Roman Empire--that same Empire of which Britain was a part.  As the story of his life, death, and resurrection spread across the world--through the trade routes of the Empire--it was natural that a new and Christian significance would be given to the seasons of the year.  At the time of the shortest and darkest day, it was natural to celebrate the birth of Christ,  the "Light of the World."  The Early Church, through much debate and also through practical experience, found itself 'inculturating' itself into the customs and traditions of people everywhere.  It also had its rich Jewish tradition and background, in which dates and seasons were of central importance and in which the timing of the Passover was deeply connected to the great Christian "new Passover"  of Christ, the ultimate Pascal Lamb, sacrificed once and for all so that all of humanity could "pass over" into union with God and a share of his blessing.  The old pagan beliefs represent some sort of hope in a Divinity:  now, in Christ, God himself reaches down t o answer, and to make sense of the longing placed in people's hearts and expressed through pagan religions.
Draw a straight line down from your Christmas tree to the bottom of the circle.  That's Midsummer Day, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  In the Church calendar, 24 June--the summer equivalent of 24 December, Christmas Eve--is the 'summer Christmas', the feast of the birthday of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist links the Old and the New Testaments.  [It's] important to understand his prophetic role, as the cousin of Christ who prepared the way for the coming of the Saviour.  He said of Christ, " He must increase and I must decrease": after John the Baptist's birthday, the days get shorter, after Christ's they get longer.
The passage continues, explaining other parts of the church year in the circle illustration.  I highly recommend buying the book, or getting it through interlibrary loan.  There is a certain quaintness and naturalness to the writing and descriptions that is hard to find in Church Year traditions books, which are often self-conscious (or sectarian).  Mrs. Bogle is unashamedly English.  Sometimes the pagan origins of Christian feasts come through in an embarrassingly superstition way; after reading her book, I sympathize with the English Puritans' anti-Church Year dogmas, although I of course ultimately disagree with them.  I hope to find comparable books from other Christian regions (no success as of yet!). 

Some St. John's Day Traditions Bogle records:
  • Having a bonfire and party outside at night, roasting sausages and eating pastries.  St. Elizabeth supposedly lit a fire as a beacon to announce to her neighbors that John had been born.  
  • Many Nativity plays performed outdoors were actually done at Midsummer, not in December (Shakespeare included a donkey and "rustics" on purpose in A Midsummer Night's Dream; his audience would have caught the reference).
We've held a "carol and hymn-sing" party sometime within the 12 days of Christmas.   We've talked about a campfire/picnic/game day in the summer, and St. John's birthday would be a great idea.  Maybe eventually it could turn into a neighborhood block party!!  A summer feast is a great way to welcome into the world the man who would point us to Christ:

"Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world."

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