The Vigil of St. 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
This page which the Church reads to us to-day, is precious in the annals of the human race, for here begins the Gospel itself, here we have the first word of the good tidings of salvation. Not that man had up to this, received no knowledge of Heaven’s designs for the lifting up of our fallen race and the giving of a Redeemer: but weary and long had been this period of expectancy, since the day when first the sentence pronounced against the accursed serpent pointed out to Adam and Eve a future wherein man should be healed by the “Son of the woman,” and God also by him should be avenged. Age upon age rolled on, and the promise, all unaccomplished still, gradually assumed certain developments. Each generation saw the Lord, by means of the prophets, adding some new feature to the characteristics of this Brother of our race; in himself so great that the Most High would call him my Son (Ps. ii. 7); so impassioned for justice, that he would shed the last drop of his blood to ransom earth’s whole debt (Is. liii. 7). A Lamb in his immolation, he would rule the earth by his gentleness (Ibid. xvi. 1); though springing from Jesse’s root, yet was he to be the desired of the gentiles (Is. xi. 10); more magnificent than Solomon (Ps. xliv.), he would graciously hearken to the love of these poor ransomed souls: taking the advance of their longing desires, he is fain to announce himself as the Spouse descending from the everlasting hills (Osee, ii. 19; Gen. xlix. 26). The Lamb laden with the crimes of the world, the Spouse awaited by the Bride; such was to be this Son of Man, Son likewise of God, the Christ, the Messias promised unto earth. But when will he come, he, this desired of nations? Who will point out, unto earth, her Saviour? Who will lead the Bride to the Bridegroom?
Mankind, gone forth in tears from Eden, had stood with wistful gaze fixed on futurity. Jacob, when dying, hailed from afar this beloved Son whose strength would be that of the lion, whose heavenly charms, still more enhanced by the blood of the grape (Oh! mystery ineffable!) rapt him in inspired contemplation on his funeral couch (Gen xlix. 9-12, 18). In the name of the gentile world, Job seated on the dung-hill, whereon his flesh Was falling to pieces, gave response to ruin, in an act of sublime hope in his Redeemer and his God (Job. xix. 25-27). Breathlessly panting under the pressure of his woe and the fever of his longing desires, mankind beheld century roll upon century, the while consuming death suspended not its ravages; the while his craving for the expected God ceased not to wax hotter within his breast. Thus, from generation to generation, what a redoubling of imploring prayer; what a growing impatience of entreaty! Oh! that thou wouldst rend the heavens, and wouldst come down! (Is. lxiv. 1)”Enough of promises,” cries out the devout St. Bernard, together with all the Fathers, speaking in the name of the Church of the expectation, and commenting the first verse of the Canticle of Canticles: “enough of figures and of shadows, enough of others’ parleying! I understand no more of Moses; no voice have the prophets for me; the Law which they bear has failed to restore life to my dead (4 Kings, iv. 31). What have I to do with the stammerings of their profane mouths (Exod, iv. 10; Is. vi. 5), I to whom the Word hath announced himself? Aaron’s perfumes may not compare with the Oil of gladness poured out by the Father on him whom I await (Ps. xliv. 8). No more deputies, no more servants for me: after so many messages, let him come at last, let him come himself!”
Yea, prostrate, in the person of the worthiest of her sons, upon the heights of Carmel, the Church of the expectation will not raise herself up, till appears in the heavens the proximate sign of salvation’s raincloud (3 Kings, xviii. 42-46). Vainly, even anon seven times, shall it be answered her that as yet naught can be descried “arising sea-wards;” prolonging still her prayer and her tears, her lips parched by the ceaseless drought, and cleaving to the dust, she will yet linger on, awaiting the appearance of that fertilising cloud, the light cloud that beareth her God under human features. Then, forgetting her long fasts and weary expectant years, she will rise upon her feet, in all the vigour and beauty of her early youth; filled with the gladness the angel announceth to her, in the joy of that new Elias, whose birthday this Vigil promises on the morrow, she will follow him, the predestined Precursor, running (more truly than did the ancient Elias) before the chariot of Israel’s king.
May the prayer of Blessed John Baptist, O Lord, plead for us, that we may both understand and merit the mystery of thy Christ.
O Almighty and Eternal God, who in the days of Blessed John Baptist, didst fulfil the institutions of the Law and the declarations of the holy Prophets, grant we beseech thee, that figures and signs being ended, Truth Himself, by his own manifestation, may speak, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.