Solemnity of St. John the Baptist (June 24)

St. John the Baptist Bonfire

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. John the Baptist.  One of the things I really like about Christianity is its universality and its adaptability to different cultures.  Perhaps the best example of that is the date established for the celebration of Christmas.  Unlike the Crucifixion and Resurrection (for which we have strong evidence of their occurrence around the Jewish Passover), we have no evidence as to the time of year when Jesus was born.

In the first couple of centuries of Christianity, there was no established Feast Day for Christmas.  It was not until the fourth century that Christmas was fixed at December 25.  While the origins of this date are incomplete, many scholars believe this date was chosen as it was the date of a major Roman celebration of the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice, Sol Invictus (the Feast of the Unconquered Sun).  Christianity likely borrowed this pagan tradition and marked it as the birthday of Jesus.  It is entirely appropriate to celebrate the human incarnation of Christ at the winter solstice as the days are getting brighter and longer with His presence. As John Chrysostom said in the fourth century:

“they call it the ‘Birthday of the Unconquered’. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord …? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, He is the Sun of Justice.”

Similarly, we have no evidence as to when the birth of St. John the Baptist occurred.  However, the Church decided that the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist should fall around the Northern Hemisphere summer solstice.  June 24 is one of the oldest of the Church feasts and is sometimes called “summer Christmas.” On the eve of the feast, great bonfires were once lighted as a symbol of “the burning and brilliant” light, St. John, who pointed out Christ in this world of darkness.  The solstice fires had been pagan, but now they were blessed by the Church in St. John’s honor. There are actual blessings for the bonfire in the Roman liturgy. 

As we celebrate the Feast of St. John the Baptist, and as the days for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere start to get shorter, may we follow his example of being a light and pointing others to Christ.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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3 Responses to Solemnity of St. John the Baptist (June 24)

  1. mkenny114 says:

    Although I share your enthusiasm for the Church’s ability to absorb the best of pagan practices and symbols, and most definitely see this as a mark of both its universality and confidence in the truth of its essential message, I would like to point out that the link made between Christmas being celebrated on December 25th and a feast of Sol Invictus is a little spurious. According to the article below (and some other sources I’ve come across) there are very few mentions of the pagan festival at all, both within and without Christendom, and mentions of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th precede any mention of Sol Invictus:

    http://www.catholic.com/blog/jon-sorensen/why-december-25

    Again, I fully appreciate the main point here, that the Church’s long-standing tradition of inculturation is a good and enriching one, but I just don’t think we should be too quick to assume that Christianity’s borrowing from the pagan culture was more extensive than it actually was, especially when secular culture often uses this as a stick to beat the Church with (ironically, the stick-beating is even worse at Easter, where the supposed pagan links are even more tenuous!)

    Anyway, none of this does anything to undermine the wonderful things that have been borrowed, and that have become part of the Church’s traditions – like the bonfires 🙂 Happy Nativity of Saint John the Baptist!

    • Michael:

      Thank you for your thorough comment. You may be correct that I overstated the case for the incorporation of pagan dates into Christianity. Although I am not a scholar, I find this both interesting and spiritual in the sense that I believe it speaks to the universality of the Christian message.

      One outstanding academic article on the subject is by Steven Hijmans which is titled “Sol Invictus, The Winter Solstice and the Origins of Christmas.“. You can download the full article my subscribing to Academia.edu (free) but set forth below is an excerpt:

      “[W]hy was the birth date [of Jesus] set at December 25, rather than March 28, for instance, or one of those other dates previously proposed? In a recent article Francois Heim states that it is now universally accepted “que la date de Noel a ete fixee au December 25 pour opposer les festivites chretiennes aux festivites paiennes” [Ed: forgive my poor French]. The pagan festivities Heim is referring to are those celebrating the winter solstice, which in the Julian calendar was calculated as December 25th. According to the Calendar of 354, 30 chariot races were held on this day to celebrate teh Natalis Invicti, that is the birthday of Sol Invictus. This feast of Sol Invictus, then, was the festival that Heim claims the Church fathers wanted to displace with Christmas. And indeed, ever since Hermann Usener’s studies of the feast of Christmas, the idea that December 25 was chosen as Christ’s birthday because of this important pagan festival has received wide acceptance.”

      Hijmans goes on to question this conventional wisdom but does conclude that the cosmic significance of the winter solstice is important to setting Christ’s birthday at December 25:

      “The most prolific imagery related to Sol (and Luna) treats the sun not as a god but as a symbol, and despite the polytheistic religious source of the anthropomorph iconography employed, the actual cosmic-symbolic connotations of this imagery were so well understood that it could be employed without significant variations by pagans, Jews, and Christians alike. Does this help us account for the choice of December 25 as Christmas Day? I think it does. . . Christians could deal with Sol, whose cosmic nature and reality were undeniable and whose potential for cosmic symbolism was inspiring, without necessarily dealing with the pagan god Sol Invictus. . . [Usener] argues that the birthday of John the Baptist was exactly six months before that of Jesus, so that he was born onteh summer solstice. This means that John was conceived in the autumn — on the equinox to be exact — while Jesus was conceived on the vernal equinox.”

      This is a fascinating subject and I welcome your additional thoughts.

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

      • mkenny114 says:

        Thanks for your reply William, and for the clarification you’ve made here. I certainly agree that whilst a connection between Sol Invictus and Christmas is a bit tenuous (given that much of what we know about SI is suppositional and we have Christian witness to December 25th as the date of Christmas prior to 354), a connection made between the birth of Christ and solar symbolism is certainly plausible, and definitely something that could be accepted by Christians, Jews and pagans alike.

        It is, as you point out in your article more generally, this readiness to absorb the shared symbols of humanity that has filled the Church with such a rich and wide range of traditions. I guess we’ll never know for sure why December 25th was chosen, but that the early Christians should see the birth of the incarnate Logos as consonant with existing cosmic symbolism such as Hijmans describes is certainly a good thesis. Thank you for that link by the way – I am not a subscriber at the moment, but will be soon now 🙂

        It is an endlessly fascinating topic though isn’t it? Another question it raises is how much significance is lost (or not) when the central Christian festivals are celebrated in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are very different. We take it for granted just how many of our Christmas (and Easter) traditions have developed over the years, coming from this country or that, and then exported those traditions to parts of the world where they are completely out of context. Yet somehow, the Church in (for example) Latin America has managed to maintain that mixture of biblical, Mediterranean and Northern European traditions, and add some of its own, without feeling any tension whatsoever – amazing!

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