Today is the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. Ora pro Nobis.
By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
In the holy Gospel, the nativity of St. John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, is described by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not only for our instruction, but also that we may rejoice in the Lord our God. In the mountains of Judaea, at Hebron, eight miles from Jerusalem, lived Zachary and Elizabeth. They were just people, and lived in accordance with the commandments of God, but had no children, although they had prayed for them many years. The great age which they had attained, naturally gave them no longer any hope of issue. But still they continued their prayer. One day, when Zachary, who was a priest, offered incense in the Temple at Jerusalem, he saw at the right side of the altar, an angel, whose appearance filled the pious old man with fear and trembling. The angel, however, said to him: ” Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard. Elizabeth, thy wife, shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. He shall bring thee joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. He shall be great before the Lord and shall drink no strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. He shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God: and he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people.”
Zachary listened with great astonishment: the angel’s promise seemed to him to be out of the course of nature. Hence, he said: “Whereby shall I know this? For, I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” The angel answered: “I am Gabriel, who stand before God, and I am sent to speak to thee and bring thee these good tidings. And behold, thou shalt be dumb and not able to speak until the day wherein these things shall come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time.” After this the angel disappeared, and Zachary, mute from that hour, returned home after he had discharged his priestly functions.
The words of the Archangel Gabriel came to pass. Elizabeth conceived and gave praise and thanks to God that He had removed from her the disgrace of being barren. Six months later, the Most High sent the angel Gabriel to the blessed Virgin, at Nazareth, to announce to her that she should become the mother of the long expected Messiah. He at the same time informed her that her cousin Elizabeth, although she was old and barren, had conceived a son, as to God nothing was impossible. After Mary had resigned herself with deep humility to the will of the Almighty, and become the mother of the Son of God, she went into the mountains of Judaea, to the house of Elizabeth and Zachary. She did not go to see if the angel’s words in regard to Elizabeth were true, but to congratulate her happy cousin, and render her such services as she would need. The Gospel assures us that when the Virgin Mother entered the dwelling of Zachary and greeted Elizabeth, John, the yet unborn child, leaped for joy in his mother’s womb, as soon as Mary’s words of salutation reached Elizabeth’s ear, and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Ghost. This leaping of the unborn Saint, was, according to the holy fathers, a sign that John, by special favor of the Almighty, knew the Saviour, yet concealed from the eyes of the world, and rejoicing in His presence, adored Him. Hence they teach that John was at that moment cleansed from original sin and filled with the Holy Ghost, and thus fulfilled the words of the angel and was sanctified in the womb of his mother.
At length came the time when he was to see the light of day, and Elizabeth gave birth to him whom the angel had promised and prophesied. When the neighbors and relatives heard how gracious God had been to Elizabeth, they all went to see her and congratulate her. On the eighth day the child was circumcised according to the law. As children, on this occasion, received a name, the relatives wished to give him that of his father, but Elizabeth opposed it, saying: ” John is his name!” “But there is none among thy kindred that is called by this name,” said her friends. Elizabeth, however, remained inflexible. Turning to the still mute Zachary, they desired to know how he would have him called. Zachary asked for a writing-table and wrote; “John is his name.” And at the same time his speech returned, and filled with the Holy Ghost, he gave thanks to God in the beautiful hymn which is one of the daily prayers of the Church, and begins: ” Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people.” All those present marvelled at these events, praised God, and spread among the people all that they had heard and seen, and concluded from it that the new-born child was destined to be great among them. Hence they said to each other: “What do you think shall this child be? for the hand of the Lord is with him.”
Thus writes St. Luke, in his gospel, of the nativity of St. John, and then adds that, “he grew and was strengthened in spirit;” and was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel, by his preaching and baptizing.
Several holy fathers write that Elizabeth fled with her child into the desert, to conceal herself from the cruelties of king Herod; and that John was nourished and kept either by an angel or in some other manner by divine Providence. Others write that, in his third or at most in his fifth year, he had voluntarily gone into the desert, eager to serve God more perfectly and to prepare himself for his mission. No one ought to think this incredible; since, even before he was born, he was gifted with the use of his reason, and comprehended the great mission to which he was called by the Almighty. So much is certain that he was from his most tender years in the wilderness. The holy Evangelists and the holy fathers tell us what manner of life he led there. He subsisted on wild honey and locusts, which are used as food in the East; but he ate so little, that our Lord said of him, that he had neither taken food nor drink. His drink was water; his garments, a coat of camels’-hair, which was fastened round his loins by a leathern belt. The ground was his bed, and he employed day and night in prayer and meditation. By fasting and other austere penances, he prepared himself for his mission. St. Augustine remarks that the severe life of penance of John was the model after which the hermits regulated their lives; hence they acknowledge him as their founder.
When in his thirtieth year, St. John was admonished by God to leave the wilderness and commence his mission. Going to the river Jordan, he preached penance and baptized the penitents. This baptism was not that which Christ instituted in the course of time: neither had it the power which the baptism of Christ has; but was only a sign of penance. In the Gospel it is related how great a multitude of people came to St. John; what he preached; how he exhorted them to do penance: how he had the honor to baptize Christ Himself, and what occurred during this event. The splendid testimony is spoken of, which he gave at different times, to the effect that Christ was the true Messiah. It is also recorded what he answered to those who were sent to him to ask whether he was the promised Messiah; for, his life was so holy and wonderful, that many believed him to be the long promised Redeemer. The events of the latter part of the life of this Saint will be related in the chapter for the day on which the church commemorates his decapitation.
Among the writings of the holy Fathers we find many sermons which contain magnificent praises of the virtues of St. John, the Baptist. They call him an angel in the flesh; an apostle in his sermons; a miracle of penance; the first hermit who induced so many thousands to imitate him; the first preacher of repentance, and proclaimer of the heavenly kingdom. They praise his fearlessness in reproving vice, both in high and in low; his deep humility, by which he deemed himself not worthy to baptize Christ, or even to unloose the latchet of His shoes; his angelic purity; his continual penance and his unwearied zeal for the honor of God and the welfare of men. But what should inspire every one with the greatest reverence towards this Saint is the fact, that Christ our Lord Himself praised the greatness and holiness of St. John so frequently, and said that among men there had been none greater than John the Baptist. What more can be said in his praise? (6)
Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
By Dom Prosper Guerenger, 1904
The Voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; behold thy God (Is. xl. 3-9)!” 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 (Ps. xvii. 10), 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 (St. Matth. xiii. 55), 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 (Ps. cxxxi. 17) Not that, to give light to His steps, Christ should stand in need of external help: He, the Splendour 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 splendour of the Sun of Justice. Even as aurora melts into day, so will he confound with Light increased, 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 (St. Luke, iii. 15).
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 (St. Luke, iii. 15). 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 (Malach. iii. 1). 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 (Ibid. iv. 5-6).
The presence of Gabriel, on this occasion, of itself shows with what intimacy with the Son of God, this child then promised shall be favoured; 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 (St. John, iii. 29). 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 angels 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 (St. Luke, i).
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 (Ps. lxxxiv. 13). 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 (St. Luke, i. 39). The voice of my Beloved! Behold he cometh, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills (Cantic. ii. 8). 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 (St. Luke, i. 55).
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, whilst 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. (Ibid. i. 68).
The hymn which follows, furnishes the Church with a beautiful formula of prayer and praise. There are few pieces so famous as this, in the holy liturgy. Its composition is attributed to Paul the Deacon, a monk of Monte Cassino, in the eighth century; and the story attached to it, is particularly touching. Honoured with that sacred order the very title of which remains through the course of ages inseparably linked with his name, Paul Warnefrid, the friend of Charlemagne and the historian of the Lombards, was on a certain occasion, deputed to bless the paschal candle, the triumphal appearance whereof, yearly announces to Holy Church, the Resurrection of the Spouse. Now it happened, that whilst he was preparing himself for this function, the most solemn of those reserved to the Levites of the New Testament, he suddenly lost his voice, until then clear and sonorous, so that, he was powerless to sound forth the glad notes of the Exsultet. In this extremity, Paul recollected himself; and turning to Saint John, patron at once of the Lombard nation and of that Church built by Saint Benedict at the top of the holy mount, he invoked him whose birth had put a stop to the dumbness of his own father, and who still preserves his power of restoring to ” vocal chords their lost suppleness.” The son of Zachary heard his devout client. Such was the origin of the harmonious strophes which now form the three hymns proper to this feast.
What is still better known, is the importance which the first of these strophes has acquired in the history of Gregorian chant and of music, The primitive air to which the hymn of Paul the Deacon was sung possessed this peculiarity, namely, that the initial syllable of each hemistich rose just one degree higher than the preceding, in the scale of sounds; thus was obtained, on bringing them together, the series of fundamental notes which form the basis of our present gamut. The custom was afterwards introduced of giving to the notes themselves, the names of these syllables: Ut, Be, Mi, Fa, Sol, La. Guido of Arezzo, in his method of teaching, originated this custom; and by completing it with the introduction of the regular lines of the musical scale, he was the cause of an immense stride being made in the science of sacred music, until then so laborious to render, and so tedious to acquire. He thus acknowledged that the divine Precursor, the Voice whose accents reveal to the world the harmony of the eternal canticle, ought to have the honour of having attached to his name the organization of earth’s melodies. (4)
Image: Natività del battista, artist: Jacopo Carucci, circa 1526