St. John the Baptist: notes and oldie PODCAzT

Today is the Feast of the one whom the Lord called the greatest man ever born of woman.

Here is his entry in the new Martyrologium Romanum:

Sollemnitas Nativitatis sancti Ioannis Baptistae, Praecursoris Domini, qui iam in utero matris, Spiritu Sancto repletae, exsultavit gaudio ad humanae salutis adventum cuiusque ipsa nativitas Dominum Christum prophetavit; et tanta gratia refulsit in eo, ut ipse Dominus de illo diceret neminem maiorem inter natos mulierum Ioanne Baptistae.

I’ll et you readers tackle that in your own perfect versions.

Let’s have a look at the Collect

Deus, qui beatum Ioannem Baptistam suscitasti,
ut perfectam plebem Christo Domino praepararet,
da populis tuis spiritalium gratiam gaudiorum,
et omnium fidelium mentes dirige
in viam salutis et pacis.

I like the sound of the ends of the clauses – suscitasti… praepararet… gaudiorum and then a big change with salutis et pacis.   Remember!  These prayers are to be sung!   Suscitasti is, as you now recognize, a syncopated form, short for suscitavi­sti, which would have diminished the rhythmic coherence in the first three clauses.

O God, who raised up blessed John the Baptist,
so that he would prepare a perfect people for Christ the Lord,
grant to your peoples the grace of spiritual joys
and guide the minds of all the faithful into the way of salvation and peace.

This modern Collect of the 1970 Roman Missal is based on the Collect of olden days:

Deus, qui praesentem diem honorabilem nobis in beati Ioannis nativitate fecisti: da populis tuis spiritualium gratiam gaudiorum; et omnium fidelium mentes dirige in viam salutis aeternae.

Perhaps the terrible wars of the 20th c., by far more bellicose than even the 16th c., drove the composers of the newer version to include the petition for peace.  One can hardly object.  The first part of the present Collect also is a bit more theological and significant.  All in all, it seems to me that the newer Collect represents an improvement over the older version: which we cannot always say when comparing old and new prayers.

In Rome today on the feast of St. John it is the custom to eat snails.    It is nice to have as your Patron the great Baptist, for I get two feasts a year, his Nativity and his Beheading!  In honor of the memory, if I can’t get snails tonight, I might try for mussels or some other mud bug.

Snails apart, I cannot help but remember a marvelous St. John’s Day when rather than snails I had wonderous mussels with a dear friend, an occasion I would repeat every year, if I could. 

For the Vigil of St. John in the old Roman Ritual the priest would once bless bonfires!  

This is lovely custom calls to mind that many places celebrated the feasts of saints with great festivity.  By this day all the cuttings and trimmings of the orchards and vineyards were dried and crackly and ready to be burned.  The evening is about as long as the year can offer, so a great party could be had well into the night with much cooking in the open and revelry.  After the usual introduction, the priest would bless the fire:

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.
All: Amen.

It is almost as if the fire, and our celebration, is baptized.  At this point the fire is sprinkled with holy water and everyone sings the hymn Ut quaent laxis which is also the Vespers hymn.

For the feast of St. John in June for centuries the Church has sung at Vespers the hymn beginning Ut queant laxis.  Those of you who are lovers of the movie The Sound of Music will instantly recognize this hymn as the source of the syllables used in solfège or solmization (the use of syllables instead of letters to denote the degrees of a musical scale).  Both the ancient Chinese and Greeks had such a system.   The Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo (c. 990-1050) introduced the now familiar syllables ut re mi fa sol la for the tones of the hexachord c to a… or, more modally, the tonic, supertonic, mediant, etc. of a major scale.   The Guidonian syllables derive from the hymn for the feast of St. John the Baptist:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum
Sancte Ioannes.

After the medieval period (when music became less modal and more tonal) to complete the octave of the scale the other syllable was introduced (si – probably taken from S-ancte I-oannes) and the awkward ut was replaced sometime in the mid 17th c. with do (or also doh – not to be confused in any way with the Homeric Simpsonic epithet so adored by today’s youth, derived as it is from the 21st century’s new liturgical focal point – TV) and do came to be more or less fixed with C though in some cases do remains movable.

So, now you know where Doh, Re, Mi comes from!  

Finally, here is a PODCAzT I did on St. John, an oldie.

St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) preached about St. John in Carthage in 401 (s. 288).  This isn’t, btw, the same reading as you would find in today’s Office of Readings, which is from s. 293).  We also get into Ut queant laxis.

Build a fire tonight, eat snails, and sing something in honor of St. John!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Pleased as Punch says:

    Sollemnitas Nativitatis sancti Ioannis Baptistae, Praecursoris Domini, qui iam in utero matris, Spiritu Sancto repletae, exsultavit gaudio ad humanae salutis adventum cuiusque ipsa nativitas Dominum Christum prophetavit; et tanta gratia refulsit in eo, ut ipse Dominus de illo diceret neminem maiorem inter natos mulierum Ioanne Baptistae.

    The Solemnity of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, Forerunner of the Lord, who even in the womb of his mother filled with the Holy Spirit, leapt for joy at the coming of human salvation, and whose very birth prophesied Christ the Lord; and so much grace shined in him that the Lord Himself said of him that there was none greater among those born of women than John the Baptist.

  2. Argent says:

    Buon onomastico!

  3. Padre Steve says:

    Being from New Orleans we eat anything in a shell! I would give the snails a shot! Bon appétit!

  4. Rob in Maine says:

    Sadly, Le Fete Saint Jean Baptiste, the Feast of the Patron Saint of French Canadians, is now known as Fete Nationale du Quebec. Much like St Patrick’s Day, it’s become a secular excuse to party.

  5. Jenny says:

    I was a music major and I had forgotten about Guido and where the solfege syllables came from. Thanks for the reminder.

    As for which note ‘do’ attaches itself to, it really depends on the school of thought. In school I knew professors who taught that ‘do’ was always C, no matter the key. Of course these professors also had a tendency toward the gift of perfect pitch. Other professors were less stringent and allowed ‘do’ to be the tonic keynote. This allowance was a great help to us mere mortals with non-perfect pitch.

  6. Atlanta says:

    This is interesting. I did not know we (Orthodox) shared the same feast day as you. Today we celebrate the Nativity of St John the Baptist and we are allowed fish (it is the Apostles Fast this week, preparing for the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul this Sunday).

  7. Emilio III says:

    iTunes reports ‘”What Does The Prayer Really Say?” does not seem to be a valid Podcast URL. Please check that you have entered the correct URL and try again.’

    This may be related to the RSS ‘Live Bookmark feed failed to load.’

  8. jaykay says:

    It being also my nameday I went to the TLM this morning, using my mother’s daily missal dating from the 1930s. First time it’s been used in 40+ years. One of the Mass cards in it (and there are many!) was a commerative one for JFK.

    There is still a tradition of the bonfire in some parts of Ireland on St John’s Eve i.e. yesterday evening/night. I looked out towards the hills behind my house where in previous years there used to be the odd cloud of smoke or two from people keeping up the tradition but yesterday they were so wreathed in low grey rainclouds that any bonfire smoke was certainly invisible.

  9. fr william says:

    Atlanta: yes, all the most ancient feasts share the same dates in East and West (making, of course, due allowance for Julian vs Gregorian calendars, and the differing calculations of Easter where the feasts are on the Paschal cycle.) Not only the Nativity but also the Beheading of the Forerunner, also SS. Peter and Paul, the Twelve Great Feasts of Orthodoxy, and probably others besides. It is good that the calendar in this way reminds us of the great patrimony of the undivided Faith of which we are co-heirs.

    Ut unum sint!

  10. Mary Jane says:

    I was saddened to hear of the decline of this feast into a national day in Quebec. In the late 19th and early 20th century, French Canadians who had come to work in the industries of New England used to drive the Americans nuts by seeing the entire period from June 24th to July 4th as an opportunity for fireworks, revelry, and generally coming into the factory late or not at all. But only after proper religious observances on the 24th, of course.

  11. Jeff says:

    The St. John’s Eve bonfire tradition is mentioned in the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacrament’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (nos. 224-25).

  12. Jeff: Thanks for that reference!

  13. Tomás López says:

    Here in Puerto Rico, San Juan is one of our patron saints (even outside the capital, because the whole island was formerly known as San Juan and just the capital was called Puerto Rico, which eventually got switched on account of a scrivener’s error). We celebrate by going to the beach and doing twelve back flips into the water. (You can google “Noche de San Juan” if you want to read more).

    Fr Zed, do you think the lack of “Si” (or “Ti”) is related to the four-lined chant staff rather than the modern five-lined staff?

    PD What does the anti-spam word “van” mean? Perhaps it is an acronym I have never heard.

  14. garry says:

    Atlanta, you (and Father John) have several feasts of St John the Bapist on the Byzantine Calendar, including his conception (Sept. 23) and a few findings of his head, etc. see

  15. Jason in San Antonio says:

    Well the dudes at schola practice tonight are going to get a lesson in the origins of solfegge. Luckily I’d brought my Liber Usualis to school today and could look up the hymn immediately. Thanks for the background, Father. (Tonight we’re working our way through the Requiem Mass, which we’ll sing at the Anglican Use Conference.)

  16. Ken says:

    “…(or also doh – not to be confused in any way with the Homeric Simpsonic epithet so adored by today’s youth…”


    Combining both of these great subjects, let’s not forget this classic:

  17. Atlanta says:

    Fr William and Garry, thanks for your comments, do either of you have blogs or are on Facebook?
    Fr. William, I agree, it is good to be reminded of unity, for there is so much that can (and doesn’t have to) divide us. This is a great blog, I am glad someone inadvertently showed me the way here.
    Garry, I don’t think in terms of the “Byzantine Calendar”, I am assuming that is “your” term for it. Forgive me, I find all this back and forth between East and West to be so awkward and delicate. I am so afraid of offending someone that I am walking on eggshells. :-)
    You will find I am very ecumenical. I think in terms of Eastern and Western calendar (I don’t think of the word Byzantine), and I am very unfamiliar with the Western calendar, outside of the popular feast days that have been commercialized. Maybe we should continue this discussion somewhere else so as not to hijack Fr. Z’s blog?

  18. Miseno says:

    Living in the NYC boroughs, I can’t light a bonfire, at least legally, for St. John’s day, but I will light a pipe. I will do it for both the Eastern and Western Church. Wow, how ecclesial of me!

  19. MG says:

    My friend lives in Spain. She sent photos along with an explanation of how they celebrate “The Night of San Juan”. The explanation is below:

    The Night of San Juan (St John) is the night of having a good time in the company of friends and loved ones. It is a celebration that is usually held on the beach with roaring bonfires, drink, food, and friends. According to tradition, it is about fire to water. Fire purifies and water recuperates, refreshes, and rejuvenates. if people jump over a bonfire three times on San Juan’s night, they will be cleansed and purified, and their problems burned away. :)

  20. fr william says:

    Atlanta, it’s good to have you on this blog. I think you’ll find you’re not the only Orthodox who frequents this site; that’s one of its strengths, that it attracts interest from a broad range of those who set great store by Holy Tradition, regardless of their specific ecclesial background. I’m afraid I don’t have a blog or a Facebook account, but stick around and I’m sure we’ll interact further. You are right that there is so much which doesn’t need to divide us; as long as I live, I will never accept that the disunity between Eastern and Western Christianity is a “given” which we just have to live with. (And I take your point about “walking on eggshells” – it is so easy to use phraseology which seems to oneself to be entirely neutral but which comes across to another as partisan or even wantonly offensive. Such, sadly, is the legacy of our divisions: we need at every turn consciously to assume good faith on the other’s part.)

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