Monday, June 23, 2014

Midsummer Eve

The old Rituale Romanum provided a blessing for a bonfire on June 23, the eve of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the night known traditionally also as Midsummer Eve. Anthropologists argue about the underlying meaning of ancient solstice fire traditions. Personally I have always found somewhat perplexing this association of bonfires with the summer solstice - not brightening the night sky at the year's darkest point in winter, but instead illuminating the already bright, shortest night of summer. Anthony Aveni (The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays, Oxford, 2003) has offered one convincing explanation. "The wondrous paradox of fire is that on the one hand its warmth creates and fosters growth and fertility, but on the other hand it possesses a fierce destructive power capable of consuming all living things - not a thing to play with. Like the radiant sun at its turning point, fire has a tantalizing power worth harnessing and controlling. ... Because fire cleanses and purifies by burning up harmful influence, so we tap its forces precisely during the season the cosmic fire rages at its peak."

People have historically reacted to the solstice in different ways, and even in our de-natured society some people still experience the seasons as significant. An old friend of mine recently made this observation on her blog about the solstice ( "But what strikes me most as I reflect on this question is the Earth's immense capacity to receive the light and heat of the sun. One whole big planet with its arms wide open, just taking in all that warmth and light." It's a nice image, certainly a suggestive one well worth meditating upon as we work our way through the hottest months of the year - even as we will shortly begin to notice progressively less light as the days start to shorten and the nights start to lengthen once again according to their annual routine.

That other side of the solstice - decreasing daylight following soon after the year's longest day - invites us to a whole other level of symbolism, a symbolism especially associated with the Christianized version of Midsummer Day, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. The reason John the Baptist's birth is celebrated at the time of the summer solstice has less to do with summer than with the fact that it is exactly six months before Christmas (in keeping with the explicit chronology of Luke's infancy narrative).  Still, the occurrence of this feast at the time of the solstice inevitably invited a seasonal symbolism of its own, especially in light of John the Baptist's own famous words with regard to Jesus: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).

According to Anthony Aveni again, "Assigning the summer solstice, exactly six months away in the seasonal calendar from the birth of the Savior, to fete St. John the Baptist, is another brilliant example of religious syncretism. ... With that delicate stroke, midsummer, a pause in the breath of the seasons when the sun makes its seasonal turnabout, became a festival of water as well as fire." To me, tomorrow's feast heralds the hope that the dryness of summer will soon enough yield to the autumn rains and the life-giving wetness of winter - nature's way of symbolizing the effect upon our spiritually dry and sterile world of the coming of Christ, whose mission it was initially John's - and is now that of the entire Church - to announce to the world.

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