The Octave Day of St John the Baptist
The Church unites on June the 24th in one same glad celebration, the memory both of the Birth of the Precursor and of his Circumcision, surrounded as it was by prodigies, related in the Gospel of the feast itself. But, properly speaking, this is the day whereon these wonders were operated, according to the words of the Gospel: “It came to pass that on the Eighth Day the child was circumcised.” By placing on the morrow of this Eighth Day the celebration of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the Church seems to insinuate, besides, that Our Lady, who had been staying in Zachary’s house during the last three months, prolonged her stay and her tender care of the infant and his mother up to this date. The babe that three months ago, at her first arrival, had leaped as though fain to force the prison of the maternal womb, seemed at the moment of his birth to spring towards her; she received him into her arms, and pressed him to her breast wherein the Son of God still lay reposing. She gave herself entirely to him during these eight days; for she knew they would be the only ones in which the Friend of the Bridegroom would taste here below, although without seeing him, the intimate presence of him unto whom his whole heart turned. Save the solemn moment of his Baptism, the sublime majesty of which would hold in subjection every sentiment in the soul of the Precursor but that of self-annihilation and of adoration, John is never to behold (excepting once or twice at a distance) the Well-Beloved he has come to announce. Profound mystery this of plan divine! John is never to know the Bridegroom, never to enjoy our Jesus, save in Mary.
Nevertheless, even tomorrow must the farewell be; even tomorrow the desert is to open before him; a desert of the soul, more terrific a thousand times than that which affects the outward senses. His flight from the world to the desert of Judea, far from being a trial to John, will be rather a solace to this infant soul for whom earth was already too narrow. In the wilderness, at least, the air is pure, heaven seems ready to open, and God gives answer to the soul that calls upon him. (Origen in Luc. Hom. XI, translatio Hieron.)Let us then not be astonished that scarcely is John born than he searches for solitude, and passes almost at once from his mother’s breast to the desert wilds. (Hieron. Dialog. contra. Lucif. 😎There was no childhood for the man who three months previous to his birth had attained, at one bound, to the plenitude of the age of Christ; (Amb. in Luc 2:30) no need of human master had he whom heaven had undertaken to instruct, (Chrysost. Hom. XIII al. XII in Joan. 2.) who knew both the past and the future, in God (lines 216-217 of Poema vi., “De S. Johanne Baptista Christi Praecursore”), and whose own plenitude of knowledge, transmitted by him to his parents, had turned them also into prophets (Guerric, Sermone I. de nativitate Iohannis Baptistae). Better far than Elizabeth had he entered into the meaning of Our Lady in her Magnificat; even on this day he quite comprehends Zachary hailing him as Prophet of the Highest, in the Benedictus: (Amb. in Luc 2:34) and from whom, save from the Word Himself, could the Voice of the Word have received the science of language? Gifted with the full use of his will, (Petr. Chrysol. Serm. 87, 88, 91)what progress, on the other side, must he not have made, in love, during these three months! The Mother of divine grace neglected nothing in the formation of this natural disposition so singularly favored, where no obstacle opposed the full development of the divine germs. St. Ambrose, whose exquisite delicacy had so wonderfully penetrated into these mysteries, shows us John under Mary’s influence, exercising himself in the several virtues, annointing his limbs like a valiant athlete, and essaying, even from his mother’s womb, the combats which await him. (Ambrose in Luc 2:29, Origen in Luc. Hom. VII-IX) The eight days which have just elapsed for him in the arms of Our Lady have completed the work. His sweet Mistress, whom he is to see no more, may even now bespeak their meeting again, in heaven, he at the left of her Son’s throne, she at the right, according to the tradition of which Christian Art has made itself the faithful interpreter up to our own time. (Grmiouard de Saint-Lauret, Guide de l’ Art Chrétien, t. v.)
While awaiting for another six months the birth of the Virgin’s Son, earth is meanwhile in possession of him who is the greatest amongst all that are born of women. No human ken in its highest soarings may touch the summits whereon this child of but eight days holds fixed the gaze of his intelligence; no sanctity may stretch to further limits than his, the heroism of love. Fully enlightened on all the bearings of the approaching farewell, he will not shrink at seeing the Son and the Mother depart on the morrow. Like the divine Spouse himself, he, the Friend of the Bridegroom, is strong enough to have no other food than the accomplishment of the Will of the Father who has sent them both. (John 4:34) His soul, filled henceforth with the memory of these days wherein his heart has been throbbing to the pulsations of that of Jesus, while Mary has been clasping him to her breast, will, by its fidelity, despite the distant parting, ever keep up between his own and these two Hearts the sublime concert wherein, during these happy hours, the Eternal Trinity has been listening for the first time to an echo, in the flesh, of Its own harmony. Like to the sunflower, friend of the day-star, which, without quitting earth whereon it is placed, keeps ever turning towards him its wistful corolla, John, from the desert’s midst, will follow in heart and thought every step of Jesus; but yet will he keep restraint upon his soul. With that eagle-glance of his which heretofore espied him in Our Lady’s womb, he will behold him despite all intermediaries, now a child, now grown up to manhood, passing by not far from his solitude; yet never once will the impetuosity of his love carry him away to climb the few hills then separating him from Jesus, and to throw himself at his sacred Feet; never once will the zeal which devours him, the Voice, the Witness of the Word, urge him to anticipate by one moment the hour that Heaven has fixed for him to cry out to the ignorant crowd: “Behold your God, the Lamb that is to save you, the expected Messias!” And when at last, in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Cæsar, he manifests the Bridegroom at the divine command, he, the great Baptist, is not the one to come nigh to Jesus saying: Master, where dwellest thou? nor is he the one that receives the answer: Come and see! (John 1:38-39) To others, yea, even to all others, the happy lot to follow Jesus, to abide with Jesus: but as to John, he thrills indeed at his blissful meeting; yet for his part, he keeps afar off, he disappears even until that day, now fast approaching, when the prison of the adulterous Herod is to become his grave.
“O God!” cries out the gentle St. Francis de Sales, “such an example as this overwhelms my mind with its grandeur.” (Letter, 14 October 1604, Ste Jeanne-Francoise de Chantal) “Oh! what divine abstinence,” exclaims the Eagle of Meaux, in his turn, “Oh! abstinence more admirable far than all those other abstinences related of St. John the Baptist!” (Bossuet, Elevations sur les Myst. 15 sem. el. 7)Let us, too, share with the Church in her admiring gladsomeness, while during these days she makes echo to Gabriel’s voice proclaiming at once the dignity both of the Son of Zachary and of our Savior himself. Let us enter into the enthusiasm wherewith so many fathers and doctors (hailing first of all Mary blessed above all) are loud in their applause of the eulogium given to John by the Word Himself. (Matthew 11) Let us understand them, when they declare that amongst all men, Christ alone is more exalted than he; (Augustine, Sermon 66:2) that whosoever else is born of woman is inferior to him; (Maxim. Taurin. Homily on St John) that he is the most excellent of all saints; (Imitation of Christ 4:17) yea, more than saint is he (Guerric, Sermone I. de nativitate Iohannis Baptistae), a demi-god (line 252 of Poema vi., “De S. Johanne Baptista Christi Praecursore”), marking the limit of human merit; so great, in fine, that a greater must necessarily be God (Augustine, Sermo CCLXXXVII on John). Contemplating a perfection so sublime which surpasses the ken of human intelligence (Guerric, Sermone I. de nativitate Iohannis Baptistae), we cannot be surprised to learn that, according to the doctrine laid down in the works of Gerson, whose authority here is of such great weight, John the Baptist is exalted in heaven above all the choirs of the celestial hosts, and holds the place left vacant by Lucifer at the foot of the throne of God. (Lectiones duæ super Marcum)
Having during this Octave been following with holy Church the teachings which it inspires, we shall conclude this day with the words of Saint Ambrose which compose the last lesson of the Matins Office now in use: “John is his name, writes Zachary, and forthwith his tongue is unloosed. Let us also write these mysteries spiritually, and we shall know how to speak. Let us engrave the Precursor of Christ, not on inanimate tablets, but on our living hearts. For to name John is to announce Christ. Let, then, these two names, John and Jesus Christ, be united upon our lips; and therefrom perfect praise will arise; like to that which issued from the mouth of that priest whose hesitating faith concerning the Precursor had rendered him dumb!” (Ambrose, in Luc. 2:32)
Let us now hear the conclusion of St. Ephrem’s song in which he gives the meeting of the Bridegroom and the Friend of the Bridegroom on the banks of the Jordan. John continues to expose the endless difficulties wherewith his humility inspires him, in order to decline the honor of baptizing the Word made Flesh.
Feeble am I, nor am I able with my hands to handle thy Body which is all Fire. But flaming are thy heavenly legions; give command unto one of thine Angels to baptize thee.
— Not of Angels have I assumed a body, that an Angel I should call to baptize Me. With a human body I am clad, by a man am I to be baptized.
— The waters saw thee and trembled exceedingly; the waters saw thee and were troubled; the stream bubbled by reason of its agitation, and shall I, frail man, dare to confer baptism upon thee?
By my baptism, the waters are sanctified, and receive of me spirit and fire. Now, unless I receive baptism, they will not have the power of generating sons immortal.
— Fire, if it approach to thy Fire, burneth like straw. Mount Sinai endured thee not, how then may I, frail man, be able to baptize thee?— By My Baptism, the Waters are sanctified, and receive of Me Spirit and Fire. Now, unless I receive baptism, they will not have the power of generating sons immortal.
— I am Burning Fire, made for man’s sake a Babe in the Virgin’s chaste womb, but now about to be baptized in Jordan’s flood.
— Fitting it were that thou shouldst baptize me, thou who art so holy that thou canst make all things clean. By these are the contaminated sanctified; since therefore, so holy art thou, what availeth that thou receive baptism?
— It behooveth much that thou, without contention, do baptize Me, as I command. Lo! I did baptize thee in the womb, do thou baptize Me in the Jordan.
— I am a slave wholly wretched; O thou who settest all men free, have mercy upon me. To loosen the latchet of thy shoes, I am utterly unqualified; who then can render me worthy to touch thine august Head?
— By My Baptism slaves obtain liberty; the handwriting is torn in pieces: the seal is put to their manumission, in the waters. If I be not baptized, all these things shall be left undone.
— In the air, above Jordan, lo! a sparkle of fire expecteth thee; if thou consentest thereunto and wishest to be baptized, do thou lave thyself, and accomplish all things.
— It behooveth that thou confer Baptism on Me, lest anyone should err and say of Me: “If he were not alien to the Father, wherefore did the Levite fear to baptize him?”
— When thou receivest Baptism, how shall I speak the prayer upon Jordan? The Father and the Holy Ghost appearing over thee,—whom then, according to priestly custom, shall I invoke?
— The Prayer shall be accomplished in silence; do thy part; set merely thy hand upon Me, and the Father, in place of Priest, will proclaim what behooveth of His Son.
— Lo! all the Elect are present; Behold those who are invited by the Bridegroom, they are my witnesses that daily have I spoken thus unto them: The Voice am I, not the Word.
— O thou Voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, accomplish the work whereunto thou art come, so that the desert may proclaim that thou art gone forth unto Him in the vast plain where thou didst preach.
— The cry of the Angels reacheth unto mine ears. Behold I hear from out the House of the Father the heavenly Virtues exclaiming: “Thine Epiphany, O Spouse, giveth life to the world.”
— Time is speeding apace, and the paranymphs are awaiting to behold what shall take place; Ah then! do thy part, confer Baptism upon Me, so that the Father’s Voice, which will presently sound forth, may be praised.
— Lord, I hear, I obey; according to thy Word,—Oh! come thou unto the Baptism to which thy love urgeth thee. With extremest veneration is it that man, who is dust, perceiveth himself to presume so as that he should lay his hand on his Maker.
There stood the heavenly hosts in silence; the Most Holy Bridegroom descended into the Jordan; having received Baptism, he presently ascended, and his Light shone forth upon the world.
Heaven’s portals were opened and the Voice of the Father was heard: “This is My Beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased.” Oh! then, adore Him, all ye people.
They that saw it were amazed, seeing that the Spirit came down to render testimony unto him. Praise, O Lord, be unto thine Epiphany which maketh all to be glad. In thy manifestation all the world is made resplendent!