John the Baptist: A transitional Figure

220px-John_the_Baptist_Prokopiy_ChirinAlthough John burned with a conviction that God was going to do something new, he had only the models of past prophets to guide him in opening a way to the great new thing. He lived in the desert, wore a camel hair coat and ate wild locusts and honey in imitation of Elijah. Like the prophets of the past, he warned the brood of vipers of the wrath to come if people did not shape up and turn back to God. (Lk. 3: 7) Again like the prophets, he told soldiers not to oppress vulnerable people. Yet again like the prophets, he rebuked his ruler, Herod. And like so many of the prophets, he was put to death.

In John’s time, baptism was established as a custom for cleansing converts. John gave it a new twist by insisting that his fellow Jews needed to be converted as much as the Gentiles and so were in need of being baptized. This was a prophetic action to dramatize God’s word. Today we call it guerilla theater. The teaching dramatized in this novel way was traditional: the people should return to the Lord who will purify them of their sins.

John defined himself through the words of Isaiah by quoting Isaiah’s prophecy of a new pathway of the Lord. (Is. 40: 3) The pathway through the desert that Isaiah was prophesying was for the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, a great new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time. In quoting these words, John was announcing that God was going to do yet another new thing, something God had never done before.

For John, this new thing was focused on a person who was to come. John believed that Jesus was this person when he came to the river. But John was confused about him, and not for the last time, when Jesus insisted on being baptized although John thought Jesus was the one person who didn’t need it.

When he was in prison by order of King Herod, John had doubts about Jesus and he sent two followers to ask Jesus if he was the one he was expecting. It seems odd that the healing miracles John’s disciples had just reported should cause doubts, but a ministry of healing was beyond the scope of John’s own ministry. Typically, Jesus did not answer the question, but pointed to his healings and said “ blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Lk. 7: 23) Given the fiery rhetoric of John’s own preaching, the sentiments of the Sermon on the Mount may also have been confusing to John.

John knew that his prophetic ministry was fading. In such a situation, most people fight back and try to regain the upper hand. René Girard suggests in The Scapegoat that John denounced Herod’s marriage not so much on legal grounds but because of the rivalrous action of taking his brother’s wife. This realization would have made John all the more cautious about rivalry on his own part and caused him to take Jesus’ admonition to avoid offense to heart, as offense is the spark that flames rivalry. John managed to renounce rivalrous behavior to the extent of saying that Jesus would increase while John would decrease. But did John know what he was renouncing rivalry for? Did John ever get an inkling that the greatest new thing God was doing in Isaiah’s time was not returning the exiles to Jerusalem but raising up a person who accepted disgrace, torment and possibly death without retaliating in any way? On reflecting on Jesus’ insistence that he be baptized, did John finally realize that Jesus was taking on the sins of the people as did Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which would make Jesus the “lamb of God?” Most Bible scholars think it unlikely that John arrived at these insights and they think the evangelists wrote them into the narrative to elucidate John’s place in relation to Jesus. Maybe. But John obviously thought long and hard about his own vocation in relation to Jesus and he was outspoken enough to cry out glimpses of insight he still did not understand.

In our time we may think we know what John was pointing to even when John didn’t, but we do well to ponder why, in her infinite wisdom, the Church gives us a liturgical year that begins with Advent where John the Baptist is prominent. Why have a season to look forward to what we know we are looking forward to? Maybe we are more in the dark about what it means for Jesus to be the Lamb of God than we think we are. Maybe we still don’t really know what great new thing God has done and what greater thing God will do. Maybe we have a lot more to look forward to than we know.

A Highway to Seeing the Glory of the Lord

treespath1After her humiliating defeat by Babylon, Israel was broken. The movers and shakers who had kept the society going were taken to Babylon where they couldn’t move or shake any more. Then, fifty years later, the prophet known as Second Isaiah proclaimed comfort to Jerusalem: the exiles will return, travelling through the desert on “a highway for our God.” Jerusalem will be made whole once again! This return of the exiles is a new thing, at least as great a new thing as God’s delivery of the Jews out of Egypt. Not only that, but, like the earlier new thing, this deliverance is a re-creation of the world by the God who is now proclaimed to be the sole creator of the world out of nothing.

René Girard suggested that the levelling of mountains and valleys stood for the levelling of society that precipitates a sacrificial crisis. I have a counter Girardian suggestion: the levelling of the desert landscape is God’s removing of the obstacles that prevent us from seeing God. The obstacles here are the social tensions created through mimetic rivalry that tear a society apart. For Isaiah, this levelling is God’s work and removing obstacles is what God does. God does not create social crises; humans do that. Isaiah said that, with the highway smoothed out, “all flesh” will see the glory of the Lord.” Not only that, but if a Gentile king had made this return possible, how much greater would the outreach be from Jerusalem to all Gentiles once the Jewish nation was reunited?

But such was not to be. The Jewish nation broke again and this time it was the Jews who broke it, not the Babylonians. Denunciations of social injustice protested by the Isaianic prophets before the Exile were repeated by Isaiah’s successors after the exile. The movers and shakers who had returned from exile also returned to moving and shaking at the expense of their weaker Jews. An anonymous victim, known as the “Suffering Servant” paid the price for the nation’s brokenness. The mountains and valleys had been recreated and the glory of the Lord was hidden once again.

“The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” is the opening of Mark’s Gospel. The Greek word “arche” also refers to the ultimate beginning of creation and the two attempted re-creations in Jewish history. Mark quotes the words of Isaiah to announce that once again (or still) God is creating a highway for God. So it is that the subsequent appearance of Jesus and his baptism by John is yet a new beginning for humanity. Once again God is removing the obstacles and just as quickly, humans are putting the obstacles back in place, with the result that Jesus was left hanging on a cross.

By coming round every year, the Season of Advent proclaims God’s removing of obstacles so that all of us, together, can see the Glory of the Lord. Will we join God, at least a little, in the work of removing obstacles so that we can glimpse the glory the obstacles hide?

The Need for New Hearts: an Advent Meditation

wreckedTrees1The traditional apocalyptic Advent themes of Death/Judgment/Heaven/Hell fuse in the recent mass shootings, especially the one at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut. A traumatic event like this at this time of year gives us occasion to wonder about the end of the world.

In a memorable poem, Robert Frost mused over whether the world will end in fire or ice. His first thought is that from what he has “tasted of desire,” he holds with “those who favor fire.” The violence of shooting deaths and terrorist attacks is filled with gunfire, suggesting that we should favor fire. René Girard has warned us that with the breakdown of the scapegoating mechanism as a way to hold a violent society together, we run the risk of apocalyptic violence spinning out of control. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God and Human See, Human Want.)

But Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar questions how fiery this violence really is. The opening rebuke of the people: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things” applies to all of the characters in the play. The ominous oracle of the beast without a heart provides the play’s central image. The heartless violence that drives the plot from civil war to assassination to civil war is all as cold as blocks and stones as well as senseless.

The violence of mass killings and terrorist attacks is frigid.  Frost says he thinks he knows enough of hate to know “that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.” The powerful understatement is all the more chilling.

There is another way the world could end in ice than cold, heartless violence. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, warns us that our modern economy creates victims through indifference. We literally do not know what we are doing. The final story in my book From Beyond to Here, “Buyer of Hearts,” explores an apocalyptic of ice and indifference. Danny Melton, a boy already bummed out because his father has left the family, suddenly begins to see ghosts floating around the school. He becomes all the more creeped out when he discovers that the people are still alive in the flesh, although “living and partly living,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, is more like Danny discovers that many of his classmates and teachers have sold their hearts for large sums of money. The selling and buying of heart gains more and more momentum as more and more people become hopelessly depressed over what is happening to their families and friends. My story, Dupuy’s warning, and Frost’s poem show us that God gives us humans the responsibility let God create new hearts within us to keep the world from ending “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Prepare a Way for the Lord: an Advent Meditation

field1John the Baptist calls out to us with Isaiah’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Isaiah here was referring to the return of God’s people to their rightful home from which they had been uprooted by the Babylonians. Even today, we live in exile, not living our lives in God as we ought. The call to repentance (metanoia) in John’s baptism means, literally, to turn our minds. This does mean just filling or minds with new books; it means turning our whole embodied selves in a new direction to see and live in a different way.

Isaiah prophecies a leveling process where the valleys are filled in, the mountains are brought low, and the crooked ways are straightened. That is, the obstacles within ourselves and within our culture that prevent God from coming to us must be removed. The image of leveling seems to suggest a social upheaval where the mighty are brought low and the lowly are raised up so that all are on the same level. This would be to overlook the real obstacle to God: our tendency to compare ourselves with one another without reference to God, preoccupied with being better than others or fretting that others are better than us. This preoccupation and the resentments they foster maintain the isolating barriers of valleys and mountains and block the way to God.

The repentance that Isaiah calls for is the renunciation of our rivalrous entanglement with others and allow for God’s leveling process that holds everybody in the same regard without exalting some or lowering others. Unfortunately, while God is smoothing out the way for us, we prefer to maintain the barriers that we think protect us. Opening a highway for God makes us vulnerable, not only to God but to all of God’s people. Take out the valleys and mountains and anybody could come deeply into our lives! Isaiah gives us fair warning by declaring that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Like all analogies, the analogy of smoothing out the landscape has its liabilities. Flat ground makes for boring scenery. Valleys and mountains make for beautiful scenery. God doesn’t destroy the landscapes God has made. That means, if we turn our embodied minds, we see that God’s leveling process is to rejoice in the valleys and mountains and twists of the road without rivalry or resentment.