[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
The figure of John the Baptist loomed large in the imagination of the early Church. This is a challenge for most Christians today. Sure, no one was born of woman greater than John the Baptist, but wasn’t that under the old dispensation? Isn’t the least in the Kingdom of God greater even than John?
It is noteworthy that John maintains one of the two primary positions relative to Christ the Pantocrator in a traditional Deisis, the triptych of icons that you can see in our sanctuary. This places him, hierarchically, quite close to the Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven. What are we to make of this?
This is a mystery worth spending time with, rather than a question that admits of one, simple answer. In this short notice, I would point out the importance of John as the preeminent prophet, the crown of the great guild that included Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Indeed, it is John who goes before Jesus Christ in the very spirit of Elijah, the greatest of the Israelite prophets. John, then, is a crucial link to our Semitic cultural heritage. His testimony to Christ is the fulfillment of the longing of the preeminent representatives of the People of Israel, the longing to see God’s face. “Behold, the Lamb of God!” says John.
John, along with Our Lady, is the model disciple, the one who “must decrease” that Christ may become all in all. Saint Augustine playfully noted that John’s feast falls at the moment when the days start to become shorter, whereas Christmas, the entrance of the “light that enlightens everyone” into the world, corresponds to the lengthening daylight.
There is one other playful aspect of today’s feast, this one directed at anyone who has had to learn the “solfege” method of singing. The hymn for Vespers, Ut queant laxis (and not “Doe, a deer…” from the Sound of Music), is the source of the familiar syllables that name the notes of the musical scale. The first syllables of each line (in bold in the pages below) name the first six ascending notes of a major scale: Ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la. The seventh degree was formed by combining the first letters of Sancte Ioannes, the last line. Later, “ut” became the more common “do” and “si” morphed into “ti.” You will notice that each line of the hymn begins one step higher than the last. Musicologists suspect that the composer of this hymn was the great twelfth-century musical pedagogue (and Benedictine) Guido d’Arrezzo, who invented the solfege system.