A pair of sonnets for St. John and St. John’s Eve.

So keep his fires burning through the night
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.

In our poetic journey through the sacred seasons of the year we have come to midsummer! The traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us  that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!

The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.

I have written two sonnets,  one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.

I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry  for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.

As usual you can hear the poems by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.

St. John the Baptist: 1 St. John’s Eve

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill

Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:

‘He must increase and I diminish still,

Until his sun illuminates my night.’

So John the Baptist pioneers our path,

Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,

Unlatches the last doorway into faith,

And makes one inner space an everywhere.

Least of the new and greatest of the old,

Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,

He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold

The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”

So keep his fires burning through this night,

Beacons and gateways for the child of light.


St. John the Baptist: 2 Baptism

Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,

A wide womb floating on the breath of God,

Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift

Lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,

And under-girded with an unheard song,

Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,

Calling us to the life for which we long,

Yearning to bring us to our birth again.

Again the breath of God is on the waters

In whose reflecting face our candles shine,

Again he draws from death the sons and daughters

For whom he bid the elements combine.

As living stones around a font today,

Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.


Filed under christianity, imagination, Poems

7 responses to “A pair of sonnets for St. John and St. John’s Eve.

  1. Bruce Bridgewood

    Brilliant. Thank you for this

  2. I grew up in Quebec and they John the Baptist Day on June 24th and now I know the history of why. 🙂

  3. A new feast day for me! Thank you for noting the blending of the pagan with the Christian. We so need to recognize the Holy Spirit working incognito in the world.

    • Rachel

      Perhaps Holy Spirit is always incognito, unknowable.

      • Yes, and no. Just the words “Holy Spirit” call up the presence. But when the words are not known? I am trying to call up the Holy Spirit when I’m in circumstances or with people who are ignorant of the words, and therefore of the reality which is often. It helps me to ask, when in such situations, “Holy Spirit, help me to recognize your presence here.” It reminds me of the Benedictine teaching to show hospitality to the stranger.

  4. Malcolm, I especially enjoy the first poem; in particular the line “the essence of the life of prayer,/ Unlatches the last doorway into faith, /And makes one inner space an everywhere.” This truly is my experience of private prayer. Corporate prayer is different, as are Healing Prayer and Intercessory prayer. But the private prayer is important for equipping us to engage in those other kinds as a ministry. The last line of yours I quote also reminds me of one from another poet’s poem, but I can’t remember which — Shakespeare, Donne? Well, then, Malcolm, you are in the right company — the Lord and other great poets! I’m so looking forward to your new book. God’s Peace to you.

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