Today is the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist, for it is written: “From my mother’s womb the Lord called me by me name, and made of me a sharp-edged sword; He concealed me in the shadow of His arm, and made me a polished arrow” (Isa 49.1-2). John, the Vox clamatis, that is, the Voice who precedes the Word.
Today’s Gospel reading, in full:
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were just before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. But they had no son, for Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. Now it came to pass, while he was officiating in the order of his course as priest before God, according to the custom of the priest’s office, that he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense. And Zachary, seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, Do not be afraid, Zachary, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son and you shall call his name John. And you shall have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great before the Lord; he shall drink no wine or strong drink, and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. And he shall bring back to the Lord their God many of the children of Israel, and he shall himself go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just; to prepare for the Lord a perfect people. (Lk 1:5-17)
This page which the Church reads to us today 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. Man had not been kept in total ignorance of Heaven’s plans for the rescue of our fallen race and the gift of a Redeemer, but weary and long had been this period of expectation, 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, still unaccomplished, 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. 2.7]; so impassioned for justice that He would shed the last drop of His Blood to ransom earth’s whole debt (Isa 53.7). A Lamb in His immolation, He would rule the earth by his gentleness (Isa. 16.1); though spring from Jesse’s root, yet was he to be the desired of the Gentiles (Isa 11.10); more magnificent than Solomon (Ps 44), 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 (Hos 2.19; Gen. 49.26). 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 Messiah promised unto earth. But when will He come, 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 Son whose strength would be that of the lion, whose heavenly charms, still more enhanced by the blood of the grape, rapt him in inspired contemplation on his deathbed (Gen 49.9-12, 18). In the name of the Gentile world, Job, seated on the dunghill whereon his flesh was falling to pieces, gave response to ruin in an act of sublime hope in his Redeemer and his God (Job 19.25-27). Breathlessly panting under the pressure of his woe and the fever of his longing desires, mankind beheld century roll upon century, while consuming death continued its ravages, while his craving for the expected God waxed hotter within his breast. Thus, from generation to generation, what a redoubling of imploring prayer, what a growing impatience of entreaty! Oh! that though wouldst come down (Isa 44.1)! ‘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 4.31). What have I to do with the stammerings of their profane mouths (Ex 4.10; Isa 6.5), 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 44.8). No more deputies, no more servants for me; after so many messages, him come at last, let him come himself!’
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 rain-cloud (3 Kings 18.42-46). Vainly, even seven times, shall it be answered her that as yet naught can be described arising seawards; still prolonging 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 fertilizing 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 gladness the angel announceth to her, in the joy of that new Elijah, whose birthday this vigil promised 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 (3 Kings 18.44-46).
The vigil, like many vigils in earlier times, is a fasting day, alongside the days of Lent, ember days, that is, the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays after the feast of Saint Lucy (13 December), Ash Wednesday, Whit Sunday, and Holy Cross Day (14 December), the vigils of the twelve apostles (excepting those of Saints Philip and James and Saint John, the vigils of Christmas Day, Whit Sunday (or Pentecost), the Assumption of Our Lady (15 August), the feast of Saint Laurence (10 August) and the feast of All Saints (1 November). And though not obligatory, it was also customary to fast the days of Rogationtide [Duffy, Stripping 41].
The idea of fasting is tied to the longing for the Lord. Saint John the Baptist is the precursor, or forerunner, of the Christ, born, we are told (Lk 1.24-26) six months prior to Christ’s nativity, hence the dating of the feast. Advent itself, like Lent, is a time of preparation and fasting. Moreover, the Advent-feel is intentional. Consider the Collect for the First Sunday of Advent:
Da, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus, hanc tuis fidelibus voluntatem, ut, Christo tuo venienti iustis operibus occurrentes, eius dexterae sociati, regnum mereamur possidere caeleste.
Grant, we beseech you, Almighty God, this will to your faithful, that, hastening in righteous deeds to meet your coming Christ, assigned to his right, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
Note the theme of running with preparation, like the ten wise virgins, “which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom” (Matt. 25:1). It is the Baptist who guides the wise virgins to meet the bridegroom. More on that tomorrow.
In fact, Guéranger, during his thoughts on Christmas Eve, references Psalm 79.2: “O thou that sittest upon the Cherubim, show thyself!” We long to see the Divinity who created us, has redeemed us, and will one day judge us.
So it is with the forerunner, whose own birth and ministry we hail as light in the darkness, hence the tradition of bonfires on Saint John’s Eve:
To finish, the capitula assigned in the Mozarabic breviary for today:
Lo! the first beginnings of Christian joy, O Lord, whereby erstwhiel the sanctified Voice preceded the Word about to be born in the flesh, and the herald of light signally announced the rising of the Day-star he himself had witnessed: by him both faith’s mysteries and salvation’s fountains have produced marvels: he is approved whose conception is miracle, whose birth is joy; therefore do we beseech thee, that we who with glad ovations hail the birthday of thy Precursor, may with purified hearts draw nigh likewise unto thine own Nativity: so that the Voice which preseched thee in the desert mauy cleanse us in the world; an ho who, preparing the way for the coming Lord, washed in his baptism the bodies of living men, may now by his prayers purify our hearts from vices and errors: so that, folowoing in the footprints of the Voice, we may deserve to come to the promises of the Word.