Three births are celebrated particularly in the Catholic Church: that of Our Lord, Our Lady, and St. John the Baptist. St. John, as pious belief holds, was cleansed of Original Sin upon the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin to St. Elizabeth (Luke 1:57), making him, along with Jesus and Mary, free from sin at birth. And so it is fitting that all three are commemorated with a vigil, each with distinct ceremonies, liturgies, and traditions.
The Vigil of St. John the Baptist (June 23) takes place shortly after the longest day in the northern hemisphere. Appropriately, it captures a sense of light supplanting darkness throughout its liturgy and traditions. In fact, the earliest of references of the Baptist in Scriptures brings this to bear with the Canticle of Zachary: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt … enlighten them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death…” (Luke 1:76-79).
St. John’s humility notwithstanding, his preaching announced that hope, light, and redemption was at hand, like a beacon of light shining into the murkiness of the Old Testament world. For this reason, our Catholic ancestors (who already had a tradition of summer solstice bonfires from pagan days) lit fires on the Vigil of the Baptist’s birth.
During this night, it was a common tradition to light bonfires in honor of St. John, keeping watch through the short night and – purely practically – use the fires to dispose of the waste from winter and spring projects. Over time, liturgical rites and prayers were added, including the blessing below, performed by a priest.
In keeping with this ancient tradition, we encourage our readers to light a fire* in honor of the Forerunner of Our Lord in order to reflect on the good fortune that our own births occurred after the Redemption that St. John prepared the people for, and to enjoy a moment with family centered around Catholic tradition. It is perhaps also a night to reflect on the beauty of our liturgy, which places the birth of St. John the Baptist in the season when the days begin to shorten: “[H]e must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
While there may not be a priest available to bless each bonfire that Catholics wish to burn on the evening of the 23rd, the head of the household could certainly recite the hymn Ut queant laxis, bringing a reminder of the reason for the fire . . . and preferably before your little ones drop their fourth molten marshmallow into the flames.
P: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
P: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.
Let us pray.
Lord God, almighty Father, the light that never fails and the source of all light, sanctify + this new fire, and grant that after the darkness of this life we may come unsullied to you who are light eternal; through Christ our Lord.
The fire is sprinkled with holy water; after which the clergy and the people sing the following Hymn: Ut queant laxis
1. Ut queant laxis resonáre fibris
Mira gestórum fámuli tuórum,
Solve pollúti lábii reátum, Sancte Joánnes.
2. Núntius celso véniens Olýmpo
Te patri magnum fore nascitúrum,
Nomen, et vitae sériem geréndae
3. Ille promíssi dúbius supérni,
Pérdidit promptae módulos loquélae:
Sed reformásti genitus perémptae
4. Ventris obstrúso récubans cubíli
Sénseras Regem thálamo manéntem:
Hinc parens nati méritis utérque Abdita pandit.
5. Sit decus Patri, genitaéque Proli
et tibi, compare utriúsque virtus,
Spíritus semper, Deus unus, omni
1. O for your spirit, holy John, to chasten
Lips sin-polluted, fettered tongues to loosen;
So by your children might your deeds of wonder
Meetly be chanted.
2. Lo! a swift herald, from the skies descending,
Bears to your father promise of your greatness;
How he shall name you, what your future story,
3. Scarcely believing message so transcendent,
Him for a season power of speech forsaketh,
Till, at your wondrous birth, again returneth,
Voice to the voiceless.
4. You, in your mother’s womb all darkly cradled,
Knew your great Monarch, biding in His chamber,
Whence the two parents, through their offspring’s merits,
5. Praise to the Father, to the Son begotten,
And to the Spirit, equal power possessing,
One God whose glory, through the lapse of ages,
P: There was a man sent from God.
All: Whose name was John.
P: Let us pray. God, who by reason of the birth of blessed John have made this day praiseworthy, give your people the grace of spiritual joy, and keep the hearts of your faithful fixed on the way that leads to everlasting salvation; through Christ our Lord.
* Where possible, and following all applicable state and federal laws regarding fires, fire safety, arson, and weenie roasting.
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"The prudent man considers things afar off, in so far as they tend to be a help or a hindrance to that which has to be done at the present time." - St. Thomas Aquinas