By Antonio V Franscisco Fernandes
In Goa, the feast of St John the Baptist is marked more with fun and revelry than prayer and devotion which precede the social celebrations of feasts of other saints.
Of course the liturgy of the day gives due prominence to the saint. And in many places the festivities end with the traditional litany. Jumping in wells or pools, and consumption of liquor have become activities associated with the event over the years.
The undesirable activities associated with the feast of São João have been discouraged and even eliminated at least in some villages of Goa. In the Goncoi ward of Aldona, for example, the practice of burning the ‘judev’ on the eve of the festival has been discontinued since the late 1980s. ‘Judev‘ was an effigy that was taken to all houses in the ward to collect coconuts that were then auctioned and the money used for revelry the next day with loud, full-throated expressions of ‘Viva São João’ along with distribution of fruits and liquor. The above mentioned ward was also incidentally one of the very first to stop distribution of liquor after any litany in the ward chapel, about twenty-five years ago.
The tourism and hotel industries have now taken it upon themselves to celebrate the traditional revelry of São João. The commercialisation of yet another festival. The liquor industry may not be far behind. And all this on the occasion of the feast of a great prophet and saint, who was an ascetic to the core. Revelry and fun activities are very much required by the tourism industry during the monsoon season. The message of John the Baptist is also very much relevant for our times, but it may be convenient to ignore it, or drown it in our wells and pools.
John the Baptist spoke the truth about the society of his times. He was a Jew living in his land, which was under the occupation of the Romans. Besides being his cousin and contemporary, he was the forerunner of Jesus Christ. “He lived in the desert until the day when he appeared publicly to the people of Israel,” (Lk 1:80). His food was locusts and wild honey. He knew his calling, the work he was required to do, and did not wish to step into the shoes not meant for him. He announced to the people, “The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandals” (Mk 1:7). No one-up attitude, but humble service for a great cause.
He spoke fearlessly denouncing whatever was wrong in the society of his times and calling for change. It had to be change of heart and change in society. Obviously he was not liked by the powerful. But he had his followers along with whom he built a counter culture which, although from the margins of society, had the potential to become a threat to the mainstream. Such a reformer as this had to be contained. But the powerful were also afraid of his popularity among his numerous followers. Nevertheless he was arrested on some pretext or the other as it happens in such cases at all times and in all places. “Herod himself had ordered John’s arrest, and he had him chained and put in prison. Herod did this because of Herodias, whom he had married, even though she was the wife of his brother Philip. John the Baptist kept telling Herod, ‘It isn’t right for you to be married to your brother’s wife!’ So Herodias had a grudge against John and wanted to kill him, but she could not because of Herod. Herod was afraid of John because he knew that John was a good and holy man, and so he kept him safe. He liked to listen to him, even though he became greatly disturbed every time he heard him.” (Mk 6:17-20).
Eventually Herod had John’s head cut on the promptings of Herodias, a story that is well known and written in Mark, chapter 6, verses 21-29. When truth became too inconvenient, John the Baptist was beheaded. It is something that also happens in our times. We have prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, reformist leaders in exile, whistle blowers eliminated, intrepid journalists murdered, and so many other similar types. The world today speaks against such practices and sometimes succeeds in winning freedom for this type of personalities - but only in a few and famous cases like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.
It is ironic that we commemorate John the Baptist with revelry. It is less challenging to organise and participate in fun activities than to remember his inconvenient truth, revere him, and feel concerned about those who are suffering for a cause in our own times.