Thursday, August 29, 2019

A Gallimaufry for St John the Baptist

Today, on both the Eastern and Western liturgical calendars, is the feast of The Beheading of the Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. This is something of an odd "feast" (I use quotes here because it is in fact a strict fasting day in the Eastern Rite) in a number of respects, especially for those of us who are not native to a more medieval liturgical context. But given the importance of St John the Baptist to medieval Christianity, and given his especial important to Tolkien, I thought I might delve into the barrow of the past and produce a few treasures for consideration in honor of this remarkable man, the "greatest born among women" to quote one authority.

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The Beheading of St John the Baptist, by Caravaggio
The Beheading is actually one of three feasts concerned particularly with the head of the Baptist: the other two (February 24 and May 25) commemorate the first and second, and third finding of the head, which according to tradition has been lost and recovered a number of times. Sorting through the various stories of the findings might be an enjoyable exercise for another blog post, but for now I only point this out to demonstrate that the figure of St John the Baptist loomed much larger in medieval Christianity than we often appreciate. In addition to the commemorations already mentioned, his nativity ("Johnmas" -- June 24), conception (September 23), and "synaxis" (primary feast day -- January 7th, the day after Epiphany or Theophany) are all commemorated on the calendar of the Eastern Rite. This is, of course, in addition to those events in the life of the Savior--the Theophany, the Visitation--which prominently featured St John. To top it all off, every Tuesday is dedicated to his memory.

To the medieval mind, the placement of these feasts and fasts were not arbitrary, nor merely the extraneous accretions of the centuries. As the medieval man or woman generally believed in a universe which was ordered by love, like an intricate dance (even if that order could be fully realized only beyond the circle of the moon), so too their experience of time reflected this belief. The intricate relationship between fixed and movable feasts alone would be the study of many lifetimes.

The feasts of the Baptist furnish some simple examples the kind of significance with which the whole year was imbued: his whole gestational period, from his conception to his nativity, is nine months and a day--one day longer than Christ's as the Virgin Mary's is one day less than Christ's, because only Christ was perfect man, you see. Then, too, his nativity comes around the time of the Summer Solstice, precisely that point where the sun will begin to turn and wane, and the days grow shorter as winter hastens on towards Christmas; for St John himself says "he must increase, but I must decrease."

Maybe these are the kinds of details which seem a little trite when they are removed from context and baldly stated in a blog post. Taken together, though, experienced within the whole world in which they belong, they are part of a beautiful dance which reveals a deep relationship between the story of redemption and the natural world. Today we are inclined to look at any correlation between the spiritual life and the natural cycle (for instance, the proximity of Christmas to the winter solstice) as either purely coincidental, or a suspicious vestige of some older pagan rite. Against both of these objections, the medieval person might ask "but when else could it have happened?"

In her much more articulate treatment of the subject, Eleanor Parker writes:
It strikes me (once again) that however much many people today, in their ignorance of all but the broadest stereotypes about the Middle Ages, stigmatise the medieval church as worldly, rigid, and oppressive, it was in some ways immeasurably more humane and creative than its modern successors. It was happy to see human life as fully part of the natural world, shaped by the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons; it was able to articulate a belief that material considerations, convenience, and economic productivity are not the highest goods, and not the only standards by which life should be lived. When confronted by calendar clashes with the potential to be a little awkward or inconvenient, the medieval church could have the imagination not to simply suppress them or tidy them away, but to find meaning in them - meaning which springs from deep knowledge of the images and poetry of scripture, the liturgy, and popular devotion.
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Eastern Orthodox icon of St John the Baptist. The Baptist is often shown with wings in Eastern iconography, indicating his angelic ministry.

For my money, the hymnography surrounding this feast is some of the most "metal" in the history of liturgical composition. Although the history of this feast goes all the way back to the Fourth Century, the earliest I've been able to positively date the following hymns is back to the Seventh Century. Either way, they're solidly medieval and so well within the purview of this blog.

The basic setting of the celebration is outlined in the following verses, sung at Vespers in the Eastern Rite:
During the celebration of shameless Herod’s birthday,
the terms of the oath to the wanton dancer were fulfilled,
for the Baptist’s head was cut off and carried like food on a platter
in the presence of those reclining at the loathsome banquet.
Truly they feasted on wickedness and murder.
But let us bless the Forerunner as is his due,
and honor him as the greatest born of women!
We're already a long way from Hillsong. Subsequent stanzas are poetic elaboration on the story. Like much festal hymnography, the chief interest seems to be in elaborating what is set down in sacred Scripture and church tradition, examining the story from the perspective of the various characters involved. In that way, such hymns take their cues from the many Psalms and canticles within Scripture itself, and serve as a sort of poetic sermon which invites us to imaginatively engage in the story of salvation. The following verses are sung, alternating chanted verses from the Psalms:
The dance of the devil’s disciple
was rewarded with thy head, O Forerunner.
Oh, banquet of blood!
Would that thou hadst never sworn, deceitful Herod!
Better that thou lie than shed righteous blood!
But let us bless the Baptist as is his due,
and honor him as the greatest born of women!
In demonic love and fiery passion, O Herod,
thou didst condemn him who reproved thine adultery.
For the sake of an oath to a dancing girl,
thou didst deliver his holy head to that Jezebel.
Woe to thee! How hast thou dared such murder?
Why was the wanton dancer not consumed by fire?
But let us bless the Baptist as is his due,
and honor him as the greatest born of women!
 Again Herodias raves with raging lust.
Oh, dance of deceit and feast of murder!
The Baptist is beheaded, and Herod is troubled.
Through the prayers of Thy Forerunner, O Lord, grant peace to our souls!
 During the celebration of shameless Herod’s birthday,
the terms of the oath to the wanton dancer were fulfilled,
for the Baptist’s head was cut off and carried like food on a platter
in the presence of those reclining at the loathsome banquet.
Truly they feasted on wickedness and murder.
But let us bless the Forerunner as is his due,
and honor him as the greatest born of women!

I really love the juxtaposition of the banqueting imagery to the image of St John's head on a platter. This dark, grotesque side of the concept of feasting helps account for the fact that this is the only "feast" of the Church which (to my knowledge) calls for strict fasting. 

Eastern Orthodox icon of the beheading of St John the Baptist (c. 1600). Imagine walking into a church and seeing this in the center of the nave!

Then these stichera, which come after the Old Testament readings for the feast (which are themselves quite instructive):
What shall we call thee, O Prophet?
Angel, apostle, martyr?
Angel, for thou hast spent thy life like those who have no body.
Apostle, for thou hast taught the nations,
and martyr, for thy head has been cut off for the sake of Christ.
Pray to Him then that our souls may be granted great mercy!
Let us celebrate the memorial of the beheading of the Forerunner;
at that time thou didst gush forth blood upon the platter,
and now thou pourest forth healing to the ends of the earth!
Today the mother of murder,
acting with more wickedness than has ever been seen,
has roused to evil her utterly wanton daughter
against the divinely-chosen and greatest of all the Prophets.
For while hateful Herod was celebrating his ungodly birthday,
she contrived according to the oath he had given her for her dancing,
to beg for the precious head of the herald of God
that gushed forth miracles.
And he, in his madness, fulfilled his promise
and gave it to her as reward for her brazen dancing.
But the initiate of the coming of Christ
ceased not after death to rebuke them for their repulsive union,
but reproved them loudly, saying:
“It does not become thee to commit adultery with the wife of thy brother Philip.”
Oh, birthday, killer of prophets!
Oh, banquet full of blood!
Let us, arrayed in white, piously celebrate the Beheading of the Forerunner,
and rejoice on this day as on a great feast!
And let us ask the Forerunner to beseech the Trinity for us,
that we be delivered from dishonorable passions, and that our souls be saved!
The reference to Herodius here as the "mother of murder" seems a fitting contrast to St Elizabeth, the mother of the Baptist, who has already been referenced in scripture readings earlier in the service. 

The hymnody is extensive, but one more example will suffice draw out the theological importance of this feast:

Come, O people,
let us praise the Prophet and Martyr and Baptist of the Savior!
For being an angel in the flesh, he thoroughly reproved Herod
by condemning his act of unlawful adultery;
and through the impious dance, he endured the cutting off of his precious head,
that he might proclaim to those in hell
the good news of the Resurrection from the dead;
and he earnestly intercedes with the Lord, that our souls may be saved.

This verse alludes to a common patristic understanding of the ministry of St John the Baptist: that, just as he had been the Lord's forerunner on earth, going before him to "prepare the way," so too he was the foreunner in Hades, going ahead of his kinsman to announce the defeat of Death and the triumph of the Son of God and Son of Mary. Once again, John is about six months ahead of his cousin (give or take, depending on the date of Easter and the usual mixup with the Julian/Gregorian calendars). Thus, martyrdom--an ever-present reality within the Church's memory--becomes a means of understanding, and even announcing, the final consummation of all of our hopes and fears, as Christ descends to our lowest place and brings us out in triumph.

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12th c. Anglo-Saxon illumination depicting the Harrowing of Hell. Note St John the Baptist is the first to come out of Hell's mouth to greet his kinsman.


This idea of the Baptist as the herald and forerunner of Christ into Hades is one of the major themes of the body of Anglo-Saxon poetry around the "Harrowing of Hell." In this context, John the Baptist is Earendel, the "morning star" (i.e., the star which presages the coming of the dawn). The following couplet from Christ I, justly famous for inspiring J.R.R. Tolkien's own mythopoeic imagination, is one I often find myself whispering when I see Venus shining high over the elms:

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtastOfer middangeard monnum sended.
Hail, Earendel! Of angels brightest
Over Middle-earth to mankind sent.

Tolkien himself seems to have had a special devotion to the Baptist--hardly surprising all things considered. He once tried to share this side of himself with his close friend C.S. Lewis. Lewis (who, while not exactly an Evangelical, was still at the end of the day a Protestant) shot him down--probably with a bluff, boisterous comment which he did not intend to wound his more sensitive friend. But it did. Humphrey Carpenter records Tolkien's recollection of this painful moment in his biography, quoting from a letter which has otherwise never made it into any official publication:

“We stumped along the cloisters, and I followed feeling like a shabby little Catholic caught by the eye of an ‘Evangelical clergyman of good family’ taking holy water at the door of a church. A door had slammed. Never now should I be able to say in his presence:
Bot Chrystes mersy and Mary and Jon,Thise arn the grounde of alle my blysse (The Pearl)
. . . and suppose that I was sharing anything of my vision of a great rood-screen through which one could see the Holy of Holies.”

More about this "great rood-screen" when we return to our regularly scheduled programming.


Currently reading: The Stripping of the Altars
Current audio book: The Return of the King
Currently translating: The Dream of the Rood

1 comment:

  1. The liturgical year, this, yes. The words don't matter, it is the dance of time which is timeless.

    ReplyDelete

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