That One Joy Man Again

St John the Baptist by El Greco
St John the Baptist by El Greco

The Church celebrates only three birthdays: that of Our Lord Jesus Christ on 25 December, Our Blessed Lady on 8 September and St John the Baptist on 24 June. In general, she is much more interested in the ‘birthday into heaven’ or day of a saint’s death. One can see why the ordinary, human birthday of Christ or his mother would be important, but that of John the Baptist? Not only do we celebrate his birthday, we celebrate it with much more ceremony than the day of his martyrdom. His birthday ranks as a solemnity, the highest form of liturgical celebration, his martyrdom as a mere obligatory memoria. That in itself tells us something important. It is John’s role as forerunner that we remember above all. Jean Daniélouu called him ‘the one joy man’, a phrase that captures perfectly both John’s extraordinary joyfulness and the meaning of his existence. He had only one purpose in life: to make Christ known. Once that was achieved, there was nothing more to do, and so he died, proclaiming to the last his faith in the goodness of God with an undiminished zeal for holiness and truth.

It is significant that John’s birthday is celebrated as the light begins to wane. We are scarcely aware of it as midsummer glitters and shines all around, but it is a fact. The Fathers loved to see the birth of the one who must decrease as mirroring the coming of the true Light in the darkest time of the year. It is a lovely image, particularly beloved of monastics, but perhaps for us today there is another resonance. Christianity now appears old to many. It has lost its first fervour and in the West its influence is waning. The world is weary of it. But to those of us who believe, it can never be old and we can never weary of proclaiming the gospel. Today’s feast is a call to examine our consciences: how do we proclaim Christ? Do we do so with joy and zeal, ready to confront the Herods of our own time, or are we timid, joyless, reluctant to be counted? Our answer, like John’s, will be enfleshed in our lives.

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The Beheading of St John the Baptist

Last year, in this post, I speculated on the feelings of failure and rejection St John the Baptist might have experienced on the morning of his execution. I stand by what I wrote then, but this morning I would like to suggest another aspect. I think we all secretly identify with John, the fearless speaker of truth to power, and like to think that, should we ever be in conflict with the regime of the day, we would be as brave as he. Our own attempts to speak out, to be men and women of integrity, give us a little glow of satisfaction — and if we think they don’t, either we are saints already or we are being economical with the truth about ourselves. How about turning it all round and thinking about the times when we have tried to silence others, have been deaf to what they said or treated with contempt their endeavour to alert us to something important? How quickly the glow of satisfaction changes to a blush of shame!

There are many questions about which we probably have firm, possibly fixed, opinions. Immigration, gun control, abortion, social welfare, economic policy — these all provoke quite strong reactions in most of us. That is the point. We react; we don’t always reflect. Least of all do we reflect when someone is saying what we don’t want to hear. Yet it is precisely then that we may need to listen hardest. St Benedict says of the visiting monk that he may have some observations and criticisms to make that the Lord wants us to hear. (cf RB  61.4) Instead of listening to the message, we tend to concentrate on the messenger; and if he doesn’t meet our idea of what he should be, we reject both him and what he has to say. The temptation to side with Herod rather than the Baptist is always there.

Today would be a good day to ask the Lord to open our ears and free us from the prejudice that prevents our hearing him, especially the prejudice of which we are unaware. Only then can we be people of integrity, upholders of truth and justice rather than persecutors of those who see and speak more truly than we.

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Rejection

Unless we have lived charmed lives, we have all experienced rejection in one form or another. We know how painful it is to be rejected, literally ‘thrown back’, by someone we love or in whom we had placed hope and trust. Not getting the university place we had set our heart on or that job we wanted so badly can be crushing. We are left feeling inadequate, a failure. We plumb the depths of self-doubt, perhaps even despair. I wonder if that is how John the Baptist felt on the morning of his execution.

The liturgy blithely assures us that the Beheading of St John the Baptist, the feast we celebrate today, was a glorious martyrdom — and so it was, but perhaps not quite in the way we often assume. The Forerunner experienced an unjust death just as Jesus Christ was to do. But I wonder whether the feast is more helpful to us if we consider not John’s triumph, but the loneliness and fear that must have accompanied his final days and hours. He had longed to prepare a way for the Messiah. He had burned with love for his fellow Jews; but, ultimately, he was made to pay the price for honesty and integrity.

It isn’t difficult to make a splendid sacrifice in front of the cameras, so to say; it isn’t difficult to stand up for what one believes when the microphones of the world are turned in one’s direction; but to remain steadfast in the darkness and dirt of a Palestinian prison, when there is no one to hear and apparently no one to care, is much harder. All at once the martyrdom of St John the Baptist takes on a very contemporary quality.

I think we honour his feast best by praying for all who speak the truth and must pay the price for it: those silenced by the regimes they live under or ridiculed and abused into submission. Let’s pray also for those who experience another kind of rejection: the three million Syrians who have fled the war in their home country; the Christians and other religious minorities who have been forced out of Iraq; all who know what it is to live in fear of death at the hands of those close to them.

 

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A Flaring Torch

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rockface for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

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Puny Mites, Threshing-Sleds and Glow-Worms

I may as well admit that this morning I feel knee-high to a worm. I am indeed one of the puny mites Isaiah is speaking of, yet the thought of being transformed by grace into a threshing-sled is not an attractive prospect. Far too effortful! (Isaiah 41.13–20) But there is something in this scripture passage that I, and perhaps you also, need to take to heart. It is that the Holy One of Israel is holding us by the right hand, and with him all things are possible. It is easy to forget that God is with us every moment of our lives. He is not a God afar off, but one near at hand: a God who loves us, sustains us, and ultimately redeems us from sin and death. We are preparing for his birth in time, the moment when, as St Leo says, the Creator became part of his creation. That is more than just a glittering paradox. It is an assurance both of God’s essential goodness — he is not, like the pagan gods of old, a fickle and sometimes malevolent being — and of our ability to relate to him. Sometimes that seems so hard. We know him by his absence more than by his presence, and we wish it were otherwise.

We can take scant comfort from today’s enigmatic gospel (Matt 11.11–15). Who are these people taking the kingdom of heaven by storm and being greater than John the Baptist? Surely not wimps like me. I was thinking about that, and the description elsewhere of John as a lamp, a lamp that prepares the way for the true Light coming into the world, when illumination struck. The glow-worm is, zoologically speaking, an insect, but we think and talk about it as a worm: a small, humble creature, wingless and rather unremarkable in daylight, though the female glows in the dark. If I cannot be a threshing-sled but must remain a worm, may the Lord make me a glow-worm, so that I too can say, ‘The hand of the Lord has done this . . . the Holy One of Israel has created it.’

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The Baptist’s Cry

The Second Sunday of Advent sets before us the gaunt figure of John the Baptist, a man of luminous integrity to whom even Herod delighted to listen. I think what always strikes me about John is his joy. Even when he is giving us a tongue-lashing — ‘you brood of vipers’ — one senses underneath the excitement he feels at the nearness of God and his desire to make him known. Sometimes, when I read the fulminations of some of my fellow Christians, I am left feeling that I do not want to know their God. I simply cannot reconcile the God  in whom I believe with the harsh and unwelcoming figure they portray. That is not to say that we should reduce God and his message to a cosy, wishy-washy liberalism that won’t say anything is wrong because it is not convinced anything is right. On the contrary, the God in whom I believe is a Person of immense holiness, awesome in his otherness. I think it is because John was utterly captivated by the holiness of God that he was so joyful. Could the same be said of us?

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The Intimate and the Epic

That is not a bad strapline for Advent. We are preparing for the birth of a baby which, when it took place in history, was an obscure occurrence in a troublesome part of the Roman Empire — nothing to get excited about. But it was also the most amazing event ever to occur in any place or time: the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Word made Flesh.

God seems to enjoy linking the intimate and the epic, often in ways we fail to register properly. The sacrament many of us receive most often comes to us in the humdrum form of a morsel of bread, a sip of wine, but we surround it with our own ideas of beauty and majesty.* Like Naaman, we prefer to have things complicated. We want grandeur rather than simplicity; we want to do great things for God rather than the little ones he actually asks. Today’s gospel (Matt 7.21, 24–27) is a case in point. We want to address God with all the grandiloquence and ceremony of which we are capable, to give free expression to all the words in our hearts, but he just wants us to be attentive to his word, to do his will.

Now that we are a few days into Advent, it would be useful to pause and ask ourselves whether the programme we have drawn up for ‘our Advent’ is really about drawing closer to God or puffing ourselves up with a sense of our own goodness. John the Baptist was great precisely because he was small in his own eyes. He had no other desire than to point towards Jesus. Maybe there is a lesson for us all in that.

*Please don’t misunderstand me. I am all for making our liturgy, and the places where we celebrate it, as beautiful as we possibly can. The casual and the sloppy are anathema to me. But without love and reverence even the grandest liturgy, the most beautiful music, are wanting.

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Saints Not Celebrities

What the Church needs is saints, not celebrities. When I tweeted that this morning in reply to a comment someone had made, I was indeed thinking of St John the Baptist whose solemnity we keep today. I have blogged a lot about him in the past (do a search in the sidebar if you are interested in any of the earlier posts) so perhaps I ought to restrict myself this morning to a single thought. John could easily have become a celebrity: the wild holy man whom even Herod liked to listen to despite his uncompromising views could have become the first-century equivalent of some of today’s mega pastors. But he didn’t. He became a saint instead and met a martyr’s death. A passionate, joyful love of God marks everything he said and did. There is a tenderness and humility about John that those who concentrate on the garment of camel’s hair or the stinging rebukes to the corrupt and extortionate easily miss.

Love, joy, tenderness and humility: these are not qualities we associate with celebrities, but they are qualities that bring us closer to God. Locusts and wild honey are optional asceticisms. The real asceticism, the one that counts, is loving and faithful obedience: daily taking up the Cross and following.

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Sunshine

It did not rain last night, for the first time since we came here. What a difference sunshine makes to the day in prospect! Even the thought of a number of tiresome jobs cannot put down the little bubble of enthusiasm that rises to the surface when the sun is shining. It is ironic that this change in the weather, short-lived though it may prove to be, should have co-incided with the feast of St John the Baptist and the turn of the year, when the days begin to grow shorter. It is as if God is reminding us that his light is always there and will shine for us when he chooses. We grumble about the weather or make jokes about the drought, but I like to think that this morning there is a huge smile on the face of God. He has surprised us yet again.

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Gaudete: the art of rejoicing

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments, musical instruments, and general air of rejoicing, marks a further stage on our pilgrimage to Christmas, but have you ever stopped to think what ‘rejoicing’ actually means? Is there an art of rejoicing that we have to learn or can we simply laugh a great laugh and be joyful in His presence? A bit of both perhaps.

I have been pondering that lyrical first reading from Isaiah 61. It is often used at monastic Clothings because of the reference to the ‘garments of salvation’. When I was clothed, my father sent me a small card on which he had inscribed not ‘he has clothed me in the garments of salvation’ but ‘he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity’. To anyone who did not know him, my father’s choice might have seemed puzzling. Why prefer the cloak of integrity to the garments of salvation? I think it has to do with the obligation that integrity lays upon us and the freedom and joy that fidelity to vocation confer. We cannot stretch the metaphor too far, but the garments of salvation are a sign of gladness of heart, a gift from the Lord, but to be wrapped in integrity is to assume a duty, that of being prophets in our own generation. Integrity is never very comfortable and will always lead to difficult and demanding situations. It is no accident that St John the Baptist was a man of the utmost integrity. He was also one of the most joyful. May he teach us not only how to be people of integrity but also the art of rejoicing.

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