Let us strengthen our hold on forms we still see.
Let us say: This once stood amongst us, in the midst of our destiny,
of all that destroys, our failure to see the way we should go was real
and drew stars down to it from the heavens’ sure depths.
—from “Seventh Duino Elegy” by Rainer Maria Rilke
Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This solemnity is so important to the Church that it supersedes even the regular Sunday liturgy. As its name suggests, this is a feast that celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist, that strange and haunting figure crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!”
It is no accident that we celebrate John’s birth at the time of the summer solstice, opposite the birth of Christ at the winter solstice. John said, “He [Christ] must increase, and I must decrease.” Indeed, at the summer solstice the light peaks and then begins to recede, decreasing day by day until the arrival of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Past generations would have celebrated this day with great fanfare, beginning with the great bonfires of St. John’s Eve. Now this day, and its season, are largely forgotten outside of the liturgical sphere.
Regardless, here we are at the start of St. John’s tide, such a special time of the year. I like to gather St. John’s wort, which blooms in this season—like my medieval forbears, I tuck a sprig above every window and door (better to keep evil out and goodness in). I also like to dry some cuttings to use as the hay in the manger of my nativity at Christmas. Usually I have to drive out to places where I have seen these plants growing in the wild, but this year a veritable miracle occurred: I found a patch of St. John’s wort growing just a few hundred feet from my house on a sunny bank at the entrance to my neighborhood, a place it has never grown before. I was able to gather several armfuls as well as dig up a few live specimens to plant in my own yard for next year’s harvest—and all of this was done on the feast day itself, such a blessing!
I would be remiss if I did not mention that St. John’s Day is also very special to us because it is my son’s Name Day (Zane is a variant of John)—there are many saints called John, but John the Baptist is the one he chose to be his patron saint. To celebrate we had cake and I said a blessing for him. You might like to do this for your children on their name days.
In closing, I thought I would share a meditation for St. John’s tide, cobbled together from different lectures given by Rudolf Steiner that are contained in the book St. John’s: An Introductory Reader (2007, Sophia Books)—I’ve indicated the pages on which each bit of the material can be found. Wishing you all a blessed St. John’s tide, and a happy summer!
Now let us examine what is left lying in bed [when we fall asleep]. What happens to it? It suddenly becomes plantlike. Its life is comparable to what takes place on earth from the moment when plants sprout in the spring until the autumn when they die back. This plant nature springs up and puts forth leaves in the human being, as it were, from falling asleep to waking. We are then like the earth in summer . . . [and] between falling asleep and waking is our summer . . . for during sleep we resemble blossoming, sprouting plant life, like the earth in summer. (pp 9, 10)
People of olden times sensed how different the air and warmth became around St. John’s time, at the height of summer, how these assumed something of the quality of plant life . . . They were aware in their perceptive feeling of a quality of ‘greening’, blossoming, and fruiting coming towards them not from the earth but descending from the surrounding atmosphere—air and warmth, themselves—and assuming a plantlike character.
Thus the festivals had a wonderful, intimate, human content. A question was sent forth into the divine, spiritual universe; and people received the answer because—just as we perceive the earth’s greening, fruiting, and blossoming today—they sensed something plantlike streaming down to them from the otherwise merely mineral air. (p 33)
This was the season which people perceived as the time of divine and moral enlightenment. And above all, what they wanted to obtain from the heavens as ‘answer’ to their performances of music, poetry, and dance was an earnest revelation from the heavens of moral guidance and impetus. (p 37)
John the Baptist . . . prepares the way for the Christ impulse. We can see him preparing the way for the Christ impulse, and we can see how he really appears to us as the one whose words characterize this impulse, saying: ‘Change your disposition. Do not look back any longer . . . but seek the kingdoms of heaven instead, in your innermost being!’ John the Baptist characterizes the true essence of the Christ impulse. He is a herald of Christianity in a truly wonderful way. (p 47)
. . . [This is] a true picture both of our current condition and the mission of St. John: To purify our longing so that more and more of . . . the world of spirit . . . can enter us. To decrease so that he can increase. To sing, humanly, but then fall silent, and listen with every fibre for the answer which resonates from the heights and depths of our being. (p 91)