The feast-day of St John the Baptist in the Holy Land started at the shrine of St John of the Desert. On the eve of the solemn feast, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land prayed Vespers in the church of the shrine near Ain Karem and went in a procession to the grotto where, according to tradition, St John lived. The liturgy was presided by Fr. Dobromir Jasztal, Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land.
In his homily, Fr. Dobromir emphasized the importance of baptism as John preached and practised. Compared to other types of “ritual washing” that was done at the time, “John’s baptism offered to the eyes of his contemporaries something absolutely new: it was not a simple purification from something, but it was combined with the need for a profound change.” According to Fr. Dobromir, John the Baptist spoke of conversion and the judgement of God and it is this fact that distinguishes John’s baptism from those known until then. “The same imperative arrives for everyone: show your conversion in your actions,” Fr Dobromir said, “John speaks to everyone; to the publicans, to soldiers, to Herod and he continues to speak to us as well.”
In the silence of the shrine of St John of the Desert – where desert means an isolated place for a retreat - there are many who seek the Lord. “We have a convent for the community of friars, a house for the nuns who are in service at the shrine and lead a life of prayer,” explained Fr. Sergey Loktionov, superior of the convent. “There are also the hermitages, where we welcome those who want to come and remain in silence and meet the Lord.”
The following day, in the afternoon, Holy Mass was celebrated in the shrine of St John in the Mountain in Ain Karem, the place which commemorates the Baptist’s birthplace. The church, which is currently being restored, dates back to the 12th century and stands in an area where there are remains from the Byzantine period and a chapel with a mosaic floor, evidence of a long tradition of worship.
The celebration for the Eucharist for the feast-day of St John the Baptist was presided by the Custody of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton and came to a conclusion with the procession to the grotto inside the church.
The Gospel of Luke in which the episode of the birth of the Baptist and the imposition of his name is narrated was read there. In his homily, the Custos focused precisely on this point. “The newness of the name is already a prophecy of the innovation of the Baptist’s mission and of the even greater newness that will be incarnated by Jesus Christ himself,” said the Custos. His importance also lies in the meaning of his name: “As St. Anthony recalls in his “Sermons”, John is interpreted as meaning “the grace of God” because he was the precursor of grace (the Nativity of St John the Baptist no. 5).” According to Fr. Patton, “each of us is offered a new name in Jesus Christ. (...) At the same time, the life of each one of us is simply grace, something we cannot dispose of at our will but which is given to us as a gift by God and which shows his gratuitous love and his mercy. Our life has meaning insofar as we live in the logic of gratuitous love and mercy.”
At the end of the celebration, the guardian of the convent of St John in the Mountain, Fr. Wojciech Bołoz wanted to thank the Consul-General of Spain, Ignacio García-Valdecasas Fernández, and the representative of the Council of Ain Karem, Alon Orion, for having attended the Holy Mass. “Together we are following the path of a relationship in the footsteps of St John,” he said, “a sign of the union between the Old and the New Testaments.”