Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Nativity of Saint John the Baptist - Friday -June 24, 2016
Saying or singing the Benedictus is a big spiritual highlight of my day. Its imagery, its boldness, its hopefulness re-ground me in the contemplation of God’s acts. Especially in those moments when I am stuck in frustration and forget that I am in the epic of salvation history, the Benedictus is the declaration of the reality that what was begun at creation, declared through ancestors and prophets, and that reaches fulfillment in Christ is still happening and is moving toward consummation. The Benedictus is full of such rich words – praise, redeemed, salvation, mercy, covenant, holiness, righteousness, prophet, forgiveness, peace, light. It sounds so optimistic, as if Zechariah is rolling out a red carpet and all John has to do is say “Here is Jesus” and Israel will flock to him and worship him, the Pharisees will realize that God is love, the Romans will lay down their weapons, the Gentiles will embrace him and the world will live in peace and joy forever. Some words, however, the rest of the story, are left out of the Benedictus: repent, judgment, ax, fire, vipers, Herod, platter, beheaded, buried. Not only does everyone not believe the message, but the powers kill the messenger.
Who is John the Baptist? He was conceived in a barren womb, living in the barren wilderness, called to proclaim repentance to many who heard and believed but to many more whose hearts were hard and barren, arrested and thrown in a barren prison, executed still wondering whether his life had any meaning, whether he should look for another. I wonder if at the end he himself would have believed the words his father prayed in his presence at his circumcision.
The hope of the Benedictus laid alongside the ambiguity of John’s life presents us with a paradox. Belief in the Benedictus cannot be mere pious sentiment. If it has meaning at all, it requires entering into the realities of our lives and interpreting those realities in the light of salvation that is truly here and truly awaiting consummation. The barrenness that we experience is real. God’s promise of light in the darkness of that very barrenness is also real. John was called to embody and articulate the suffering of his life and the life of the people as the call to new life. The prophet – the truth-teller, the preparer of the way, the conscience proclaiming justice and peace – is born out of, lives in, and dies in the places of the world that appear to be most without God. We proclaim the Benedictus as reality even, and especially, where our own souls and the world around us is far from mercy, righteousness, forgiveness, and peace.
Perhaps this tension is the Christian, and especially monastic, vocation. John entered into his world as it was while at the same time embodying and proclaiming God’s dream of what could be and will be. The vocation is a movement inward and outward. He first goes to the wilderness, probably with a community of Essenes who are awaiting the Messiah, to pray and be still and listen and wait. His own heart has to be forged in the furnace of transformation in the barren place before what he says and how he is will bear fruit. In the confrontation with God he is on the road to the conversion of his self-will, his illusions, and his fears. He knows what will happen when he appears to Israel, what the Pharisees will think of him and what the Romans are likely to do to him. But he is free – he has transcended the need for human acceptance or approval. This is our inward journey. When he appears publicly he unmasks the oppressive domination system, confronts exploitative distortions of the nature of God, articulates a vision of personal and communal conversion, and embraces his role as forerunner by saying of Christ “He must increase and I must decrease”. This is our journey in community and for the church and the world. John is committed to the truth, especially in naming the evil of oppression and prejudice. His gift is in upholding a standard of real peace forged in facing hard realities that resists the wide road of passive resignation. He is an actualized, individuated person whose own mortal life is offered in the service of God’s vision of salvation.
We read the Benedictus, then, as God’s mission in and for the world through the life of John the Baptist and through our lives as well. Ultimately, salvation will fill the whole earth. On the way to consummation, as we cooperate with God, we encounter the response that John experienced. Some, by God’s grace, hear and believe. Others will not. For us all, the call to personal holiness and communal justice that burst forth in the Benedictus beckons us to action with God. In our journey to embrace life, we must stand up against the presence of whatever seeks to demean, withhold, or repress that life within ourselves and our neighbors and help the light to shine, especially in the darkest places. The Benedictus is, like the Magnificat, the announcement of a radical reorientation of the world as a community and how we live in it as individuals – a reorientation to the mystery of hope in suffering, life in barrenness, faith in unknowing, power in powerlessness.
Zechariah’s words, then, engage us in the call to live the truth that it declares about us – that we are redeemed, liberated, rescued, fearless, and those upon whom light has shone. That I am selfish, fearful, and arrogant at times reminds me of my need for this promise to be refreshed in me tomorrow and the next day and the next day. This is the journey. It is not arriving at the complete satisfaction of my longings, but the very fact of my dissatisfaction is the journey, is the beginning of prayer. Life is difficult. We can’t be whole. We are in the dark. We don’t have all the answers. None of those statements negates the invitation to a joyful life, but ground joy in bigger realities than my feelings and my understandings. Yet we are on the way to freedom and light and peace. May the birth, prayer, witness, preaching, death and joy of St John the Baptist guide us in faithful service as we proclaim the coming of salvation.