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From Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year.

THE Church unites on June 24 in one 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 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 to whom his whole heart turned. Except for 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. O profound mystery of the divine plan! John is never to know the Bridegroom, never to enjoy Jesus, save in Mary.

Nevertheless, even to-morrow must the farewell be; even to-morrow 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.[1] Let us not, then, be astonished that scarcely is John born than he seeks solitude, and passes almost at once from his mother's breast to the desert wilds.[2] 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;[3] no need of human master had he whom heaven had undertaken to instruct,[4] who knew both the past and the future, in God,[5] and whose own plenitude of knowledge, transmitted by him to his parents, had turned them also into prophets.[6] Better far than Elizabeth had he entered into the meaning of our Lady in her Magnificat; even on this day he had understood Zachary hailing him as prophet of the Highest in the Benedictus:[7] 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,[8] what progress on the other side must he have made in love during these three months! The Mother of divine grace neglected nothing in the formation of this natural disposition so singularly favoured, where no obstacle opposed the full development of the divine germs. St Ambrose, whose exquisite delicacy has so wonderfully penetrated into these mysteries, shows us John under Mary's influence exercising himself in the several virtues, anointing his limbs like a valiant athlete, and essaying, even from his mother’s womb, the combats which await him.[9] The eight days which have just lapsed 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.[10]

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 dwells the intelligence of this child but eight days old; no sanctity may stretch to farther limits 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.[11] His soul, filled henceforth with the memory of these days wherein his heart has been throbbing to the pulsations of that of Jesus, whilst 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, in spite of all obstacles, 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 P 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!'[12] To all others falls the happy lot of following Jesus, of abiding with Jesus: but as to John, he thrills indeed at the blissful meeting; yet for his part he keeps afar off, he disappears 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.'[13] ‘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!'[14] Let us, too, share with the Church in her admiration and joy, 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 Saviour 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.[15] Let us understand them, when they declare that amongst all men Christ alone is more exalted than he;[16] that whosoever else is bom of woman is inferior to him;[17] that he is the most excellent of all saints;[18] yea, more than saint is he,[19] a demi-god,[20] marking the limit of human merit;[21] so great that a greater must necessarily be God.[22] Contemplating a perfection so sublime which surpasses the ken of human intelligence,[23] 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.[24]

Having during this octave been following with holy Church the teachings which it inspires, we shall conclude this day with the words of St Ambrose which form the last lesson of the Matins Office now in use: ‘"John is his name,” writes Zachary, and forthwith his tongue is loosed. 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 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!'[25]

Let us now hear the conclusion of St Ephraem'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 honour of baptizing the Word made Flesh.

Hymn

Non possum infirmus ego manibus attrectare ignitum tuum corpus. Ardent autem tuæ legiones cœlestes: uni ex angelis tuis præcipe ut baptizet te.

Non ab angelis corpus assumpsi, ut advocem angelum ad me baptizandum. Humanum corpus indui, ab homine sum baptizandus.

Aquae viderunt te et valde tremuerunt: viderunt te aquae et concussæ sunt; spumat præ agitatione amnis, et ego infirmus quomodo tibi baptismura conferre audeam?

Aquae baptismo meo sanctificantur, ignem spiritumque a me accipiunt. Quod nisi baptismum accepero, facultatem non habebunt generandi filios immortales.

Ignis igni tuo si accedat, exardescit ut stipula. Mons Sinai te non sustinuit, quomodo infirmus ego possim te baptizare?

Ego sum ignis accensus, propter homines infans factus in intemerato virginis utero, nunc vero in Jordane baptizandus.

Valde decet ut tu me baptizes qui ita sanctus es ut omnia mundare possis. Per te contaminata sanctificantur; quum igitur ita sanctus sis, ad quid baptismum suscipias?

Valde oportet ut tu absque contentione, ut jubeo, me baptizes. Baptizavi te in utero, baptiza me in Jordane.

Servus sum, prorsus inops; tu qui omnes liberas, miserere mei. Corrigias calceamentorum tuorum solvere impar sum; quis dignum me reddet sublimissimum tuum attingere caput?

Meo baptismo servi libertatem adipiscuntur, chirographa lacerantur, manumissio in aquis obsignatur. Si baptizatus non fuero, hæc omnia irrita fìent.

Scintilla ignis in ære exspectat te super Jordane; si illi assentiris et baptizari vis, tu teipsum abluas et perficias omnia.

Decet te mihi baptismum conferre, ne quis erret et dicat de me: 'Si non esset alienus a Patre, cur levita timuisset ipsum baptizare?'

Quando baptismum suscipies, quomodo orationem absolvam super Jordanem? Patre et Spiritu sancto super te apparentibus, quemnam pro more sacerdotum invocabo?

Oratio in silentio absolvetur: age, manum tuam duntaxat impone mihi, et Pater loco sacerdotis proclamabit quod oportet de Filio suo.

Electi omnes ecce adstant; ecce qui a sponso invitati sunt, testes sunt me quotidie dixisse inter eos: 'Vox sum, non Verbum.'

Vox clamantis in deserto, perfice opus ad quod venisti, ut proclamet desertum te exisse ad eum in magna planitie ubi prædicasti.

Clamor angelorum pervenit ad aures meas. Ecce audio e domo Patris cœlestes Virtutes exclamantes: 'Epiphania tua, Sponse, vivificat mundum.’

Festinat tempus, et me exspectant paranymphi ut videant quid geritur; eia, age, confer mihi baptismum ut laudetur vox Patris quæ mox resonabit.

Audio, Domine; juxta verbum tuum, eia, veni ad baptismum ad quem tuus te amor compellit.

Summa cum veneratione contemplatur homo pulvis, se eo usque pertigisse ut manum suam plasmatori suo imponat.

Stabant in silentio cœlestia agmina; descendit sanctissimus Sponsus in Jordanem; baptismo suscepto mox ascendit, et lux ejus efïulsit super mundum.

Portæ cœli apertæ sunt, et vox Patris audita est: 'Hic est Filius meus dilectus in quo mihi complacui.’ Eia, omnes populi, ipsum adorate.

Stabant spectatores stupefacti, videntes Spiritum descendisse ut de illo testimonium perhiberet. Laus, Domine, epiphaniæ tuæ quæ omnes lætificat. In manifestatione tua totus resplenduit mundus.
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 am I 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?

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 thee are the contaminated sanctified; since, therefore, so holy art thou, what availeth that thou receive baptism?

It behoveth 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 loose 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 behoveth that thou confer baptism on me, lest anyone should err and say of me: ‘ If he were not alien from 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 behoveth 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!

[1] Origen. in Luc. Horn, xi, translatio Hieron.
[2] Hieron. Dialog. contr. Lucif. viii.
[3] Ambr. in Luc. ii 30.
[4] Chrysost. Hom xiii al. xii in Joan. 2.
[5] Paulin, poema vi de S Joan. Bapt. v 217, 218.
[6] Guerric Ign. Serm. i in Nativ. S Joan. 2.
[7] Amb. in Luc. ii 34.
[8] Petr. Chrysol. Serm. 87, 88, 91.
[9] Amb. in Luc. ii 29. Before him almost in the same terms, Origen in Luc. Hom, vii-ix.
[10] Grimouard de Saint-Laurent, Guide de l'Art Chrétien, t. v.
[11] St John iv 34.
[12] St John i 38, 39.
[13] Lettre du 14 octobre, 1604, a Ste Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal.
[14] Bossuet, Élévations sur les Myst. xv, sem. èl. 7.
[15] St Matt. xi.
[16] Aug. Sermo lxvi 2.
[17] Maxim. Taurin. Hom. in Nat. S Joan. 3.
[18] De Imit. Chr. iv 17.
[19] Guerric Ign. Sermo i in Nat. S Joan.
[20] Paulin. Poema vi, v, 252.
[21] Max. Taur. Sermo lxi in Nat. S Joan. 5.
[22] Aug. Serm. cclxxxvii in Nat. S Joan. 1.
[23] Guerric, ubi supra.
[24] Lectiones duæ super Marcum.
[25] Amb. in Luc. ii 32.