In a few weeks it will be the longest day of the year.  On the 20th of June, the sun will rise in Dumfries at 4:34am and set at 21.58pm.  That is a daylength of 17 hours, 23 minutes and 23 seconds.  This day will be more than 10 hours longer than the winter solstice.  The daylength of 22 December 2023 was here 7 hours, 9 minutes and 12 seconds.
Life in our part of the world has always been affected by the varying times of sunrise and sunset. In the ancient Roman world, 24th June was the traditional date of the summer solstice and 25th December of the winter solstice. In the early fourth century, the church fixed the date of the birth of Jesus as 25th December with the symbolic that with Jesus’ birth the light comes into our dark world.  Since the gospel of Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, the feast of John the Baptist was accordingly fixed on 24th June in line with the summer solstice.

Apart from Jesus it is only John the Baptist where the church celebrates the birthday.  On all other days where the church celebrates the memory of a person – here in Scotland for example St Andrew’s Day on 30 November – this relates to the day of their death.  Midsummer has always been regarded and celebrated as an unusual time of the year.  It was especially important to our ancient ancestors.  Many Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments appear to have been built around the position of the sun at the summer solstice.  Prominent examples are the Calanais Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis and Stonehenge.  Midsummer celebrations and revels traditionally started at
sunset on 23rd June, the eve of St John’s Day.  Fire was the most typical element associated with these celebrations, it was supposed to repel evil spirits.  For the summer solstice was seen as a liminal time during which mortals were more exposed than normal to the fairy or spirit world.

Despite their modern reputation, fairies traditionally were seen as bent on mischief, or worse.  That is echoed in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Shakespeare can even speak of a “midsummer madness” in “Twelfth Night”.  The celebration of the birth of John the Baptist at midsummer gave this festival a new meaning.  This day expresses with natural phenomena what it means to follow Jesus.  For John the Baptist states regarding Jesus in John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”   This is symbolized in the fact that the length of the day “begins to diminish” after the summer solstice.

When Jesus calls us to deny ourselves in taking up our cross, he calls us to let ourselves go so that he can increase  in us. You can see on the left a detail from the crucifixion of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. In stark contrast to the horrific agony of Jesus, John stands next to him unaffectedly.  With the open Bible in his left hand, he points with a prolonged index finger at Jesus.  John serves as a representative of all the prophets who foretold Jesus’ suffering.  The lamb with the cross at his feet refers to John’s declaration, “Look, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Over his right hand is John 3:30 in Latin “IIlum oportet crescere
me autem minui”.

Johannes Wildner