Today is the feast of the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist.
There was in the days of Herod, the King of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia, and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth. And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame. And they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were well advanced in years. And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord; and all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an Angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him was troubled, and fear fell upon him; but the Angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity. For he shall be great before the Lord: and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. And 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.–St. Luke, i. 5 – 17
So sacred was St. John’s day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on 23 June, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast (Battle of Fontenay, 841). “Joy, which is the characteristic of the day, radiated from the sacred precincts. The lovely summer nights, at St. John’s tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away when, all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain-top, and in an instant, every town, and village, and hamlet was lighted up” (Gueranger). (2)
The custom of the “St. John’s fires” has endured unto this day. All over Europe, from Scandinavia to Spain, and from Ireland to Russia, Saint John’s Day festivities are closely associated with the ancient nature lore of the great summer festival of pre-Christian times. Fires are lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his feast. These “Saint John’s fires” burn brightly and quietly along the fiords of Norway, on the peaks of the Alps, on the slopes of the Pyrenees, and on the mountains of Spain (where they are called Hogsueras). They were an ancient symbol of the warmth and light of the sun which the forefathers greeted at the beginning of summer. In many places, great celebrations are held with dances, games, and outdoor meals. (3)
It should be noted that in the Catholic sections of Europe the combination of the ancient festival of nature lore with the Feast of the Baptist has resulted in a tradition of dignified celebration, which has come down to our day. People gather around the fireplace, dressed in their national or local costumes, and sing their beautiful ancient songs. When the fire is lighted, one of them recites a poem that expresses the thought of the feast. Then they pray together to Saint John for his intercession that the summer may be blessed in homes, fields, and country, and finally perform some of the traditional folk dances, usually accompanied by singing and music.
At sunset on June 23rd in Ireland, the festivals begins. This midsummer festival was known as St. John’s Eve, or Bonfire Night, and not that long ago, it was a wide-spread tradition. For several days beforehand, children and young people went from house to house asking for donations for the blessed fire. It was considered very unlucky to refuse. In fact, at some fires, the names of generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer. But then, the names of the miserly were also announced and these were greeted with jeers and catcalls.
Imagine what it must have been like. Around the fire were assembled all the people of the locality – from the smallest children to the oldest men and women. As the sun set, the fire was lit. Usually, this honor was given to a knowledgeable elderly man who would say the traditional prayer for the occasion. One verse of this prayer is:
In the honor of God and St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (3)
And if you’re looking for an excuse to build a bonfire, the Church gives us a great reason to do so tonight, for tonight is the vigil of the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the prophetic forerunner of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist was a man on fire with the Holy Spirit. His words burned like a furnace, and he feared no one, even the powerful rulers of his day. He called all to repentance without exception, and lightened the way for the messiah like a blazing torch. What better way to commemorate this zealous prophet than with a roaring bonfire?
And indeed, it is an ancient tradition of the Church to build a bonfire on the night of June 23, the vigil of St. John’s nativity, and keep watch through the night. The vigil of this feast is also symbolic in that it takes place only a few days after the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, calling to mind St. John’s declaration that, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
So build a fire tonight, like centuries of Catholics before you, and spend time with your family and loved ones. Remember this great saint who courageously preached the coming of the Messiah, and ask him for his intercession.
The Roman Ritual contains a priestly blessing for the vigil fire, and it is one of the oldest prayers contained in it. But if no priest is available to bless your fire, the family can sing the hymn together and the father can recite the closing prayer. Enjoy! (5)
Image: The Holy Children with a Shell, artist: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (4)