Lessons for the choir from Saint John

For us charged with the choral office, the feast of Saint John the Baptist bears paramount importance. It is on this feast when, at vespers, we once again sing the hymn that became the basis of the names of the notes of the mediaeval hexachord. Paul the Deacon, to whom authorship of the hymn is ascribed, saw in the 8th century the parallel in his and Zachary’s situation when, scheduled to sing the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil, he instead came down with a sore throat that very day. Needless to say, the anecdote confirms that, indeed, Paul’s throat was healed.

Stanzione - El nacimiento del Bautista anunciado a Zacarías
Annuncio a San Zaccaria della nascita di San Giovanni Battista | Massimo Stanzione | c. 1635

Six months after John’s birth, our Lord was born. Shortly after the birth of the Messiah, Herod the Great ordered the massacre of all male infants, two years and under, in Bethlehem. Only two survived. Christ, Whom Joseph and Mary spirited quickly to Egypt, and John, whom Elisabeth and Zacharias hid in the wilderness. And this nourishes our motley experience in promoting sacred music, our steadfast commitment to preserving Gregorian chant in the life of the Church.

Stanzione - San Juan Bautista se despide de sus padres
San Giovanni Battista dice addio ai suoi genitori | Massimo Stanzione | c. 1635

Our isolation in this seemingly inhospitable part of the Lord’s vineyard, which other workers attempt to compromise by diverting irrigation (Goodbye, 2000-ish-year-old chant! Let’s support music that people want to hear!), adulterating fertiliser (Away with Latin! Nobody understands it these days!), or substituting crops (Hello, alius cantus aptus!) is not for naught. Sweeter is triumph at the height of adversity.

Stanzione - Predicación del Bautista en el desierto
La predicazione di San Giovanni Battista nel deserto | Massimo Stanzione | c. 14635

Sacred music is becoming a stranger in its own home. It is as if we are continuously encouraged towards holiness from one side, and expected to act on this resolve while hearing in the liturgy music bordering on the wanton. Popes, bishops, concerned liturgists have spoken in favour of sacred music. To some Catholics, however, who harbour other notions, obeying such pronouncements, even those enshrined in the blueprints of reforms they so cherish to the point of canonisation, is a pill far bitterer than a quashed ambition. Germane thoughts of solidarity ripple across the vineyard. But when the stewards, his foremen, and their concerned labourers turn to other problems, the determination fizzes out, and we are left again in the wilderness of obedience. The head is willing but the members are weak.

Stanzione - Degollación de San Juan Bautista
La decollazione di San Giovanni Battista | Massimo Stanzione | c. 1635

But what immensely fortifies us most in the duty to which have been called and to which we have responded is the reality of persecution. Every day we labour is a day lived in martyrdom. Not necessarily with blood. Let us not shirk away from this reality, and call upon the guidance of the Precursor of the Lord, whose birth loosened the tongue of his father.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

What child is this?

There is a pious tradition reckoning the feast of Saint John the Baptist as the Summer Christmas. It is, after all, the liturgical feast of the earthly birth of the Precursor of the Lord, Whose proper birth is celebrated six months later, a celebration the Anglosphere calls Christmas. These two and the earthly birth of the Blessed Virgin are the only earthly births the Church celebrates. All other birthdays are heavenly birthdays, coinciding with the martyrdom or the death of a saint.

Gentileschi - Nacimiento de san Juan Bautista
Nascita di San Giovanni Battista | Artemisia Gentileschi | 1633–1635
Bouguereau - La Vierge, l'enfant Jésus et Saint Jean-Baptiste
La Vierge, l’enfant Jésus et Saint Jean-Baptiste | William Adolphe Bouguereau | 1882

That the birth of Saint John the Baptist has a summer character to it has to be underscored as well, because of its scriptural significance. The summer solstice usually falls on 21 June, and after this occurrence, we usually notice the days shortening. The shortest day, that is, the longest night, usually falls within the period of the misas de aguinaldo, and the days will begin to lengthen again after the winter solstice, which usually falls on 21 December. Indeed, even the arrangement of the season reflects the relationship between the Lord and His Precursor. Oportet illum crescere, me autem minui, so saith Saint John.

What child is thisAnd so, today we prepare to celebrate this year’s Johnmass (which forms a triad with Christmas and Ladymass). Compared to Christmas, the feast of Saint John has not been blessed with a vast repertoire of hymns, either in Latin or in the vernacular, even if its vespers hymn is the basis of nomenclature in solfege. Years ago, therefore, we decided to appoint alternative lyrics to one the many tunes associated with Christmas, Greensleeves, which carries the Christmas title What child is this? This Johannine parallel (click the thumbnail to open the file), likewise, uses this same title, having taken the strange opportunity of commemorating in one carol the only three who were born with no original sin: Christ our Lord was sinless; Mary was conceived without original sin; the Lord sanctified Saint John while still in the womb.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

Indebted to a sore throat

Suppose you are a deacon coming down with unusual hoarseness in the evening of Good Friday. You are scheduled to chant the Exsultet in the Easter Vigil the following Holy Saturday. What will you do? Probably an ‘overdose’ of Strepsils or Dequadin, right? Or, if your throat craves a more ‘esoteric’ approach, pei pa koa or salabat, right? But this would only be the first part of Homo proponit, Deus disponit. For the second part, whose special intercession would you ask to obtain a swift restitution of your vocal faculties? Saint Blaise, the martyred bishop of Sebaste, is the first one that comes to mind, naturally. After all, there is a special blessing of throats on his feast day.

Oratory Easter Vigil 2017-3

In the 8th century, however, a Lombard historian (at the same time a deacon in Rome and a monk in Monte Cassino), by the name of Paul Warnefried, invoked Saint John the Baptist, most likely inspired by how the birth of the Precursor loosened the tongue of his father [1]. On Holy Saturday, before the Vigil, Paul wrote a poem, in perhaps the best classical metre there is (the Sapphic Adonic metre), which he dedicated to Saint John, asking in the very first stanza for the healing of his throat [2]:

Ūt quĕānt lāxīs rĕsŏnāre fībrīs
Mīră gēstōrūm fămŭlī tŭōrūm
Sōlvĕ pōllūtī lăbĭī rĕātūm,
Sānctĕ Iŏānnes.

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