Oh, the joy of First Vespers of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist: a glorious set of antiphons and (in the monastic Office) an inhabitual sequence of psalms — 112, 145, 146, and 147. What do these four Vespers psalms have in common? The first and third begin with Laudate; the second and fourth with Lauda! In the liturgy there are no insignificant details; the details set the tone.
In my Rosary after Vespers, I stayed with the First Chapter of Saint Luke for my five mysteries; 1. The Annunciation to Zachary (Luke 1:5-22); 2. The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38); 3. The Visitation (Luke 1:39-55); 4. The Birth and Circumcision of John the Baptist (Luke 1:56-79); 5. John in the Wilderness (Luke 1:80).
John the Baptist and the Immaculate Heart of Mary
John the Baptist, while yet an infant hidden in Saint Elizabeth’s womb, was the first to experience the sweet mediation of the Virgin Mother’s Immaculate Heart. It was the God-bearing Virgin’s Heart, full of solicitude for her cousin Elizabeth, that moved her to “arise and go with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah” (cf. Lk 1:39). There the Mother of God bearing her Son beneath her Immaculate Heart, “entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Lk 1:40).
The Light of the Real Presence Shining in Her Eyes
This was, in a sense, the first mission of the Immaculate Heart of Mary: to carry the hidden Christ to the “little child” (Lk 1:76) destined to be the Friend of the Bridegroom (Jn 3:29), the Prophet of the Most High (Lk 1:76). With the flame of love burning in her Immaculate Heart and the light of the real presence shining in her eyes, Mary “became in some way a “tabernacle” — the first “tabernacle” in history” (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, art. 55). With the arrival of the Virgin–Tabernacle enclosing within her the “Dayspring from on high” (Lk 1:78), John the Baptist was sanctified, washed clean of original sin, and quickened by the Holy Spirit.
The birth of John the Baptist was an occasion of jubilation. Having already been touched by the Heart of Mary, the Cause of our Joy, the Baptist comes into the world as the Herald of Joy. His prophetic ministry, even as he advances toward a cruel death, is illumined by a supernatural joy. “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:29–30).
The Infallible Sign of the Presence of God
For what gift does the Church make us ask in the Collect of tomorrow’s solemnity? For “the grace of spiritual joys.” Already by his birth, Saint John the Baptist teaches us that the first of these spiritual joys is a living, personal contact with the Immaculate Heart of Mary. At every moment, the Mother of God is ready to grace us with her presence. She comes always to reveal the Face of her Son, hidden now in the Eucharist as He was hidden in the tabernacle of her womb when she visited Elizabeth. The fruit of that mysterious encounter between the Infant Christ and the Infant Forerunner had the unmistakable taste of divine joy, the joy that Blessed Abbot Marmion called “the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Blood and Roses
Look at this marvelous painting by Botticelli depicting the Mother of God, the Child Jesus and His little cousin, the Baptist. What I find most striking is that at the very center of the painting is the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Virgin is holding her Child; he appears heavy in her arms. She bows low to allow the little Baptist to give her Jesus a hug and a kiss. The small boys appear to be about two years old. The Baptist has to stretch to reach the Face of Jesus; he is already dressed in his desert garb and carrying his little wooden staff. The top of the staff has the form of the Cross; the Cross thus appears directly over the head of the Infant Christ, a portent of His sacrifice. The Mother of God wears a blood red gown; something about her posture suggests an outpouring of blood, an effusion of the heart. Just behind the Virgin is a rose bush in full bloom: a symbol — yes, you guessed it — of spiritual joys.
Let Me Give Thy Son a Kiss
More than my words ever could, Botticelli’s painting suggests that the mission of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is to introduce all of us, as she did the little Baptist, into a reverent and tender intimacy with her Son. The Mother of God bends over each of us, her garments dyed red in the Blood that flowed on Calvary, the very Blood that won for us every spiritual joy. Where the Mother of God is present, there charity is poured out and there spiritual joys abound. Put yourself today in the position of the child John the Baptist. Ask the Blessed Virgin to let you embrace her Son and offer Him a kiss. Her Immaculate Heart will not refuse you this.