Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
The Rev. Matthew Wright
Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Wednesday, June 24, 2015
|John the Baptist preaching|
These are word from an Orthodox liturgy dedicated to John the Baptist, whose nativity we celebrate today. And it’s significant to take note that we are celebrating the nativity of John the Baptist. This isn’t what Christians do. We honor saints, whether martyrs or not, by observing their death anniversaries. Beyond Christmas, the Feast of THE Nativity, the birth of our Lord, we observe the nativity of only two saints—the Blessed Virgin Mary and Blessed John the Baptist.
And this is in recognition of the special place these two hold within the sacred world, within the spiritual geography, of Christianity. Next to the Mother of God, St. John the Baptist is given the highest place of honor of all the saints. So high indeed that he gets his own “Christmas”—his own nativity feast. And this feast traditionally, like Christmas, was honored with the celebration of three masses; one in the dead of night, one at daybreak, and one in the afternoon, symbolizing John’s preaching before the coming of Jesus, his baptism of the Lord, and his own sanctity and martyrdom.
So why such a high honor? What’s so important about John? John’s mission and ministry was greatly remembered by early Christians, and it’s obvious from the Gospels and from the Acts of the Apostles that some of Jesus’ own disciples, and many of the first Christians, actually started out as disciples of John.
We often call him the forerunner or the harbinger of Jesus, and the reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah gives us those familiar words remembered as a prophecy of John’s own preaching: “A voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” John was the voice preparing the way. Now we know from history that he started a religious movement in his own right, and there’s at least one living religion today—the Mandaeans, mostly in Iraq and Iran—who trace their beginnings back to the preaching of John the Baptist.
And so John’s preparation wasn’t just a pointing to Jesus, and some scholars would go so far as to say that he didn’t simply prepare for Jesus, but that he actually prepared Jesus: that when Jesus sought out John and received his baptism, he was actually apprenticing himself to John, taking John as his teacher, his rabbi and mentor, and essentially joining John’s movement. Of course, time is greatly compressed in the Gospels, so things seem to move very quickly, but perhaps Jesus’ time spent in the wilderness was actually his tutelage under John.
The reading we heard from Luke’s Gospel comes from Luke’s first two chapters, where he actually parallels the births of Jesus and John. And he sets them up so closely together that John almost becomes a second Christ, and John will later be believed by some to actually be the Messiah. Now most scholars will tell us that Luke’s parallel birth narratives are less history remembered and more history stylized in service of the Gospel proclamation. But what’s clear is that John’s and Jesus’ ministries were remembered as being very closely related.
And the Gospels remember that it was around the time of John’s death that Jesus’ own preaching mission really caught fire, as if the torch had been passed. But what becomes clear is that the ways of John and Jesus—the style of their preaching and mission—began to diverge. John lived in the wilderness and waited for the people to come to him; John was remembered as an ascetic who fasted and refused strong drink; while Jesus was remembered—by his opponents, at least—as a drunkard and a glutton who hung out with sinners. But while Jesus moved in the world and among the people, he never seems to have forgotten what he learned about solitude in the wilderness with John, and we see him returning again and again throughout his ministry to the wilderness, to a deserted place, to a quiet place, to be alone.
So I sometimes think we can overemphasize the differences between Jesus and John—John was the harsh, ascetic separatist in the desert while Jesus embraced the world out in the marketplace. It’s not entirely untrue, but we shouldn’t lose sight of their close similarities, and particularly that John, like Jesus, embraced all manner of people in the wilderness, whoever came to him, and generally speaking he seems to have sent them back into the world. Perhaps as Jesus’ mentor, it was even John who gave him the instruction to begin carrying the message into the towns.
And so as we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist today, we’re celebrating the great “hinge of history” within our Christian sacred world. John is remembered as the last prophet of the old covenant and the first prophet of the new. He has a foot in both worlds, and we essentially don’t get Jesus without him, much in the way we don’t get Jesus without Mary. These two above all others are the preparers of the Way. Mary as his mother and first teacher, John as his rabbi and mentor—they prepared the Way; they literally prepared Jesus.
In that great icon called the Deesis, the Supplication, which you can see at the very top of the Icon Cross above the altar, it is always John and Mary pictured on either side of Christ, offering supplication on behalf of all humanity, always these two great saints whose nativities we celebrate, these two saints who are the two great hinges of Christian history.
Jesus says of John in the Gospels, “there is none greater born of woman” and Luke tells us that John was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was born. And so just like Scripture’s understanding of Mary, it’s a pretty high view, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Traditions even developed around John, as they did around Mary, that he was free of the taint of original sin. And more than that, that he was actually an incarnate angel, preceding the incarnate Word. The words of the prophet Malachi, “See I am sending my messenger [angelos, angel, in Greek] to prepare the way before me” were taken literally as a reference to John. John was the incarnation of an angel. And this, too, is often reflected in iconographic depictions—you need only take a look at the icon of John above the holy water stoup as you enter the church to see his wings unfurled.
I’ll leave you with one final image of John, since we are at Holy Cross Monastery. St. John Chrysostom called St. John the Baptist “the prince of monks” and St. Jerome called him “the true founder of monasticism.” He wrote: “Realize your nobility, monks! John is the first one of our calling. He is a monk.” We can see monastic life, then, as that witness within the Church most closely tied to the vocation of John. That witness which is continually preparing the way of the Lord and pointing the world most clearly to Christ.
And so, on this feast of his nativity, “Come people, praise the prophet and the martyr, and the Baptist of the Lord, for he is an angel in the flesh.” Amen.