Sunday, June 24, 2007

St. John the Baptist

When the subject of St. John the Baptist comes up, we are likely to think of fiery sermons, a jail sentence and lurid beheading. The Church, however, celebrates his birth and his baptism of Jesus in the Jordan in higher fashion than his martyrdom (an anecdotal indication of the hold St. John's death has on people: we recently received a drawing by a Catholic artist celebrating this Solemnity of St. John which depicted him adult and headless). We don't often think of John as a gurgling infant (except perhaps jumping in the womb), but paintings and icons abound with him as a baby (sometimes at play with the Baby Jesus as well).

The first reading for today's Solemnity (the significance of which is demonstrated by its outranking a Sunday!) is wonderful in its depiction of the crucible that was John's late-life crisis.

"Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the Lord."

One thinks of John in prison, sending disciples to make sure that Jesus is the real thing. Did John think that he had 'toiled in vain'? Many Fathers of the Church assure us that he sent his disciples to Jesus because they had questions and not himself. Perhaps. I suspect that this question is related to the Von Balthasar controversy about the limits of Jesus abandonment by the Father. Is it possible for us to maintain genuine Christian faith while celebrating as a saint someone who possibly doubted at his life's end? I doubt that this question will be satisfactorily settled in my lifetime. I have given my own personal nod in Von Balthasar's direction, and I feel similarly about St. John. As a monk I must pray, every Thursday for the rest of my life, the haunting and uncompromising words of Psalm 87 (88 in your Bible, probably):

"I am reckoned as one in the tomb:
I have reached the end of my strength...
like those you remember no more,
cut off, as they are, from your hand.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face?...
Friend and neighbor you have taken away.
My one companion is darkness."

That's where the Psalm ends. There's no, "I will praise God who saves me" at the end.

Every monastic with whom I've spoken about this Psalm finds it life-giving, despite its relentless gloom. This is part of the human experience: would John or Jesus himself have been spared it if their mission was the reconciliation of those far from God?

"Toiled in vain;" this was the experience of so many saints, especially religious founders. God vindicated them. This should be cause for hope, even when we feel hopeless.

God's blessings be with you!
P.S. I have a copy of Alyssa Lyra Pitstick's book criticizing VB's Mysterium Paschale thesis. I will post my comments as I make my way through it!

No comments:


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page