BY ADELMO FERNANDES
Every year, on June 24, Sao Joao is celebrated in Goa. The traditional celebration sees people jumping in natural water bodies while the new fangled interpretation of the festivities sees people jumping into swimming pools at resorts.
But the festival has more to it than jumping into pools, natural or otherwise. In all the Sao Joao revelry, not much heed is given to the Biblical importance behind the festival.
June 24 happens to be the feast of St John the Baptist. Born in the late first century, St John was a Jewish prophet who preached the imminence of God’s final judgment. According to the Old Testament, he was born somewhere in Judea, near Jerusalem.
The last great prophet before Jesus Christ, his birthday is one of the oldest feasts in the liturgy and his birthday is the only birthday of a saint to be celebrated, with, of course, the exception of birthdays of Jesus Christ, Mother Mary.
The story of the Saint, who gained recognition as a prophet, had several disciples and baptised a number of people, including Jesus Christ, begins in the days of the king of Judea King Herod.
In Judea lived an old childless couple by the name of Zachary and Elizabeth, who were holy and good.
Zachary was a priest. Twice a year he would visit Jerusalem to serve in the temple there. One day, on one such biannual visit of his, he saw an angel standing by the altar. The angel told him not to be afraid and that he had come to tell Zachary that God would send him a son.
And in that son, the angel prophesised, Zachary would have “joy and gladness…for he shall be great before the Lord…and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.”
But they were an old couple and so Zachary asked: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
To which the angel replied: “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God…and behold, thou shall be dumb and unable to speak until the day when these things come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”
And Gabriel’s words came to pass for soon Elizabeth found that she was to have a child; Zachary already having been struck dumb from the moment the angel has pronounced his words.
Six months later Gabriel appeared to Mary and greeted her with words that will never be forgotten: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” Then, as he said to Zachary, he said to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” He told her that she would bring forth a son who would be called Jesus, and that “He shall be great and be called the Son of the Most High.”
Gabriel then shared Elizabeth’s secret with Mary and explained as he did to Zachary that although Elizabeth was very old, it would come to pass – “for nothing shall be impossible with God.”
Mary “rose up and went with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Now, it so happened that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting that child in her womb leapt, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit cried out: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb! And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, the moment the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy.”
Elizabeth son’s was name John.
Of John St Luke has said: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit and was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”
As a preacher, John was gentle but straightforward and simple with his answers. He said: “Let him who has two coats share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”
When soldiers asked what they should do, he said: “Do not plunder, nor accuse the innocent falsely, and be content with your pay.”
He told the tax collectors to take no more than was due from the people they taxed.
When his followers began to wonder if indeed he was the Messias, he finally spoke the words for which he is most famous: “I, indeed, baptise you with water. But one mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.”
Every year, on the night of June 23, the city of Porto, in the north of Portugal, becomes lively and seemingly crazy. Thousands of people come to the city centre and to the most traditional neighbourhoods to pay a tribute to Saint John the Baptist, in a party that mixes sacred and profane traditions.
The festivities have been held in the city for more than six centuries, yet it was during the 19th century that Saint John’s day became impregnated in the city’s culture and assumed the status of the city’s most important festival. An interesting tradition among the people of Porto during the ‘Festa de São João’, with roots in pagan courtship rituals, is to hit each other either with garlic flowers or soft plastic hammers.
Imagine his faith in doggedly preaching the advent of Christ whom he would not recognise if he saw. He recognised Him after he had baptised Him and this is what he said: “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John’s death, like Christ’s, was a spectacle, and St Mark concludes his account of it with words that could refer to the death of Our Lord. “And his disciples, hearing it, came and took away his body, and laid it in a tomb.” [NT]