St. John and the Pagans

Tomorrow being the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist – one of the “big” saints on the Christian calendar as he gets TWO feast days (the other being that of his martyrdom) – this evening communities throughout Catalonia and indeed much of Spain will be celebrating the popular festival known among other names as the “Nit de Sant Joan” or “Night of St. John”. As I have written about previously, the celebration of St. John’s birthday close to the arrival of midsummer has a number of unique customs associated with it, oftentimes coming from pagan origins. With the arrival of Christianity, many of these traditions were re-interpreted and still continue. For example, the pagan Iberian midsummer practice of immersing one’s self at dawn in the sea or other local body of water, now has a baptismal significance when performed in connection with St. John the Baptist’s birthday.

Admittedly, the appropriation of pagan customs into local Christian tradition continues to disturb some. However, the best way to think about these things is simply to look at any American city or town containing a courthouse or a monument to a great historical figure. We may honor Abraham Lincoln by having built a massive monument to him on The Mall here in Washington, and that monument looks very much like an ancient temple, but we do not go to that monument and worship the statue that sits inside, however majestic in appearance.

As I noted in a piece on courthouses I wrote not too long ago, we may build – or we used to build – beautiful courthouses that would look at home in the Roman Forum, but they have a different significant for us today. They are not places of burnt offerings to Zeus or Apollo, but instead places where we come together to try to keep society together and on a moral course. Christians were able to successfully take pagan symbolism and re-interpret many elements of it, so as to provide a sense of continuity with the past, while at the same time rejecting the theology (and often the immorality) of that past.

Back on the Iberian Peninsula, local transit and security forces are already gearing up for what will be all-night local bonfires, beach picnics, fireworks, etc. In the city of Valencia, police officials have already announced that they will be asking all of the overnight beachcombers who plant themselves on the sand to await the sunrise and jump in the Mediterranean to leave the shores by 5:00 a.m. Among the various venues for the festival in Barcelona, parades of costumed partygoers and fire-jumpers will shut down the port beginning at 10:00 p.m., and beginning at midnight a series of concert performances will take place on the beach until 3:00 a.m.

St. John is somewhat of a dour figure in the Gospels, so one wonders what he thinks about all of this revelry on the occasion of his birthday. An highly ascetic man who felt that he had to go off into the desert and live on grasshoppers would probably have found much of this appalling, on a personal level. Still, such activities allow the people to celebrate the arrival of warm weather, the end of classes, the beginning of summer vacation, and – hopefully – will give them a little food for thought about the message St. John preached as Christ’s forerunner in the Gospels, of putting away one’s sinful life and turning with charity toward others.

St. John’s Night Fireworks over the Church of Santa Tecla
on the beach in Sitges, just south of Barcelona
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