The Connection Between Litha and John the Baptist

It might seem odd to some that a Christian minister would write about celebrations such as Litha. For a while now, I have felt a connection between the Celtic Wheel of the Year and the feats and festivals of the Christian Church. I see nothing antithetical to the Christian practice. In fact, the celebration of the earth and all she has to offer is very Christian.

After the creation of humanity, God placed humanity in charge of, or as caretakers of, creation. It is a misnomer and a bad translation that led to this idea that humanity had dominion over creation and could thus do whatever humanity wanted. That very idea has brought us to the state we are now in. Mother Earth needs healing from all that humanity has done to it.

Litha celebrates the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. Where I live, we call this the first day of summer when it is mid-summer. There will be 15 hours of sunlight on this day, but starting tomorrow, the days will become shorter as we begin the march toward winter. We have reached the height of summer.

There is a connection between feasts and festivals of the pre-Christian time and contemporary Christian feasts. In the 4th century, the Christian church designated June 24th as the feast of St. John the Baptist. The Gospel of Luke records that John, the cousin of Jesus, was born six months before the birth of his famous cousin. As we do, we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th, placing John’s birth during mid-summer.

Professor Éamonn Ó Carragáin of University College Cork makes this connection:

“By the sixth century, this solar cycle was completed by balancing Christ’s conception and birth against the conception and birth of his cousin, John the Baptist. Such a relationship between Christ and his cousin was amply justified by the imagery of scripture. The Baptist was conceived six months before Christ (Luke 1:76); he was not himself the light but was to give testimony concerning the light (John 1:8–9). Thus, John’s conception was celebrated on the eighth kalends of October (24 September: near the autumn equinox) and his birth on the eighth kalends of July (24 June: near the summer solstice). If Christ’s conception and birth took place on the ‘growing days’, it was fitting that John the Baptist’s should take place on the ‘lessening days’ (‘diebus decrescentibus’), for the Baptist himself had proclaimed that ‘he must increase; but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). By the late sixth century, the Nativity of John the Baptist (24 June) had become an important feast, counterbalancing at midsummer the midwinter feast of Christmas.”

St. John came to prepare the way for Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel was read, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:30). John understood that his light had to decrease for the light of Jesus to increase. The summer solstice celebrates the time when the light starts to decrease, moving towards yule, or the winter solstice, when the light begins, once again, to increase.

I think it is easy for those who follow Jesus to fluff off these pre-Christian festivals as pagan nonsense; however, if we look closely enough, we can see traces of our theology in understanding these so-called pagan rituals and celebrations. Our ancestors, in faith, were connected to the land in ways that we should strive to regain. If we understand our role as caretakers of creation, then getting in touch with that creation would be a worthy first step.

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