Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nativity of St John the Baptist - Jun 24, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Nativity of St John the Baptist - Sunday, June 24, 2012
Homiletical notes

Isaiah 40:1-11
Acts 13:14b-26
Luke 1:57-80

The time came for Elizabeth to deliver and she bore a son.  When her neighbors and relatives, and those of us here on this very day, heard that the Lord had shown her his great mercy, they shared her joy.

Joy, of course, joy at the birth of any human being as Jesus emphasizes when encouraging the disciples about the affliction which must be borne, but for this feast, joy concerning the one called the precursor of Jesus, who will precede and indicate his approach, perhaps by simply getting people used to the idea that something new is about to come on stage.

The total clarity and ecstasy of infants when John and Jesus met before birth; much less clarity for the adult John seeking realization of the original vision: “Are you he who is to come or do we look for another?”

A grand celebration of John’s birth is called for because of how Luke sets up the birth with bells and whistles similar to the birth of the Messiah. In fact, the bells and whistles associated with the Nativity of Jesus are a kind of development of those associated with the Nativity of John the Baptist in a literary treatment called ‘step parallelism’ in which the miraculous events of the birth of Jesus are a kind of one-upmanship to those of the birth of John as the evangelist spins out both nativity narratives, and for this reason, perhaps, the celebratory events connected with John’s birth aren’t as dramatically clear as those of Christmas.

Nevertheless, the Breviary antiphons describe cause for a rip-snorting celebration: Your prayer has been heard, Zechariah; your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.  Your heart will thrill with joy and many will be glad that he was born, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. From his birth he’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit and will bring back many Israelites to the Lord their God. He’ll go before the Lord as forerunner, possessed by the spirit and power of Elijah. You, John, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to offer his people a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins; and we are reminded that it was an assurance of forgiveness not like that of the scribes, for it was given with prophetic authority, which is why the people flocked to him confessing their sins and being immersed in the Jordan.

John, as we recall, lived in the spirit and power of Elijah, uniquely able to comfort God’s people, to speak to their heart. I’m reminded of Thomas Keating’s appearance at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre about ten years ago, where waiting to get in verged on a kind of European soccer riot. I doubt if most of the crowd put in two twenty-minute periods of daily Centering Prayer, but they’d clearly come to take the presence of the master.

Now, here’s an important possibility about John’s training which augmented and refined the prophetic character he received from God. It supposes the death of John’s elderly parents while he was quite young, and his adoption by the Essene community of Qumran, signaled by the concluding verse of the Gospel text: As the child grew up, he became strong in spirit. He lived out in the desert until the day he was manifested to Israel.

This phrase has served as the basis, along with other considerations, for the plausible hypothesis - which cannot be proved or disproved - that John spent some of his youth among the Essenes of Qumran. Born of elderly parents, he is located as a child by the Lucan narrative “in the desert.” For all the parallelism in the stories of John and Jesus in the infancy narrative, there is no further indication of any contact between the families. Somewhat further on in Luke we are simply told that a “message came from God to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert.”

This could be understood as a turning point, when he broke off from the Essenes with whom he had lived for some time, and went forth to preach a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Part of the reason for this hypothesis is that John, born into a priestly family, is never depicted as serving in or associated with the Jerusalem Temple, as was his father Zechariah. It is not implausible that John, perhaps after the death of his parents, was adopted by the Essenes, who were known to take “other men’s children, while yet pliable and docile . . . and mold them according to their own ways.”  Among those ways was the practice of what the Essenes called ‘Midrash,’ a form of lectio divina according to the axiom “How do I know what I think unless I tell you?”

This might lead us to imagine that scriptural meditation without scriptural conversation is lacking an essential food group. Not only is this important in the Jewish and Christian traditions, but equally in Hinduism and Buddhism which engage in various types of so-called Dharma conversation, including one the Tibetans call “Dharma Combat.”

Midrash, the study of the scriptural tradition, was so valued by the Essenes that its practice was not immediately opened to newer members; one had to live awhile in the brotherhood to learn the ropes, but once engaged, its daily observance resembled the conversation between Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus: Fire. And such fire that the breaking of the bread flowed rather spontaneously out of it. Which is to say the Essenes shared in a breaking of bread pretty much identical with the table fellowship for which Jesus became notorious. I’m suggesting that John the Baptizer’s early formation was stamped by this daily practice of Midrash, the daily Essene practice of Midrash and immersion - whence John’s signature practice of confession and immersion.

As mentioned, the celebratory events connected with John’s birth are not as dramatically clear as those of the birth of Jesus, the parallel narrative, nor do we possess the Gospel of John the Baptizer according to Matthew, Mark or Luke. It’s difficult to propose a toast to God for John’s birth comparable to those which celebrate the birth of the Messiah, and given the early rivalry between John and Jesus as prophetic figures, one might wonder if important data about John was eventually suppressed.

Nevertheless, important markers about John have been preserved in the hard shell of the tradition, and we’re at liberty to suppose and celebrate that the one who preceded Jesus in the spirit and power of Elijah went about reviving the sons of widows, predicting droughts, accusing Jezebels, triumphing over the priests of Baal, receiving angelic sustenance, outrunning Ahab’s chariot on the way to Jezreel, and meeting God in sheer silence, while reminding us, How do I know what I think unless I tell you?

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