Monday, June 24, 2013

Happy St. John's Day

Celebrated: In traditionally Catholic European countries

Today is the Christian feast of St. John the Baptist, the last great scriptural prophet before the public
ministry of Jesus. In Europe the feast of John the Baptist is combined with pre-Christian midsummer celebrations, so St. John's Day is a day of bonfires and fireworks and the ritual harvesting of medicinal plants. (Yes, St. John's wort is traditionally harvested on June 24, and that's how it got that name.)

If most people know anything about John the Baptist, they remember that he was beheaded at the request of Herodias's daughter, known to tradition as Salome. Herod had taken up with his brother's wife, specifically forbidden by the Law, and John told Herod he was sinning. Herod didn't want to hear it, but John had become such a popular and famous figure that Herod couldn't kill him off. Matthew tells us that the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod's guests and pleased them so much that Herod promised her anything she wanted. At her mother's urging, she said, "Bring me the head of John the Baptist."

But the truth was that John was annoying and obnoxious, and his days were numbered as soon as he started talking. Even the gospels admit he was weird and scary; he dressed in camel's hair, he lived off locusts and honey, and people thought he was possessed. But they could not look away, and he drew larger and larger crowds. Something about him demanded attention, because he Would. Not. Shut. Up. Ultimately, it was his privilege to introduce Jesus to the world.

Saints aren't demi-gods, in the Catholic tradition. They're humans who are supposed to serve as role models of grace by their extraordinary gifts and their extraordinary sacrifice. The example of St. John the Baptist feels more relevant to me today, this year, here and now, than it ever has.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. This blog has been more or less moribund for the last couple of years, for a variety of reasons that include distraction, laziness, and — yes — cowardice. It's perfectly rational, of course: the world is loud and crowded, everyone seems to be shouting, and why should any reasonable person waste her time and risk her dignity by shouting along with the rest?

What John the Baptist tells us is that we need to speak up, all of us. We need to say what we see, even if it gets us mocked and jailed and beheaded. We cannot worry about being weird and obnoxious if we know the truth when other people deny it. Truth lives on, even if we don't; we're going to die anyway, so why not speak while we can?

To my surprise and dismay this has become a particular issue for women over the past couple of years. I look around and I see smart, talented, loving women taking themselves out of the conversation because other people — mostly men, but women too, to my pain and shame — tell them to shut up. John the Baptist tells us to keep talking, to shout it out.

It would be appropriate to close this post with a link to the Godspell opening number — John the Baptist calling people to prepare the way of the Lord — but instead I feel like calling on Aimee Mann's hymn of rage for every silenced woman out there. (Nigella Lawson, that's for you.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy Midsummer

Also known as: Litha  
Celebrated: Worldwide in the Northern Hemisphere

Today, June 21, is the longest day of the year. Throughout much of Europe the celebrations are combined with the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, but that's a different holiday with a different purpose, and deserves a post of its own.

I've always wondered why they call this Midsummer. The calendar says it's the beginning of summer, and the middle of the season falls at the end of July/beginning of August (another holiday on the Celtic calendar, but that too will get its own post in time). Calling this Midsummer harks back to the days before we lived our lives by the paper calendar, and divided the seasons into two instead of four.

Today is as sunny as things will get, up here at the 44th parallel. It's a beautiful day with temperatures in the high 70s, not too humid, exactly what the Maine Office of Tourism wants you to believe a Maine summer is like. The whole summer isn't like this, but enough of it is that it reminds us all of why we live up here. We celebrate with a river festival that began on Wednesday and will run through the 4th of July, with parades and fireworks and live music and art fairs. It's also strawberry season, for about the same stretch of time, and once again I will set out to discover exactly how many I can eat before I break out in hives (somewhere between one and two pints, depending on external factors I'm still investigating).

It's precious because it's all so short. By mid-August we'll be noticing how much shorter the days are up here, and the fleece will probably be out again by Labor Day.