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.

Rising to the Life of Christ

crosswButterfliesWhen St. Paul says in Romans that we are baptized into Jesus’ death, what kind of death are we baptized into? An aged person drifting off while asleep? A ritual death with no consequences? No, we are baptized into the death of Jesus. This particular death, the one we are baptized into, is a judicial death resulting from collective violence. This is the shameful death of an alleged insurrectionist at the hands of an Empire. This death was caused by the meltdown of rivalry in the society of first century Jerusalem, exacerbated by the betrayal and cowardice of Jesus’ closest followers.

Once we know what death we are baptized into, we know what life we are raised to. In his risen life, Jesus showed no resentment or vengeance to those who had gathered to put him to death or had dispersed out of cowardice.  Moreover, Jesus was not entangled in any of the rivalrous feuds that are a way of life for most humans. Imagine living without all the entanglements and resentments swirling around and inside of us. Hard to do, isn’t it? That is how radically different the risen life is from the life we live now.

If our “old self” is crucified with Jesus, then we have, like Jesus, died in the place of the victim. That means we have died to our tendency to fuel resentments and resolve these resentments through gathering against the victim, as Paul himself repented of having held the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen and openly approving of what they did.

None of this means that repenting of personal sins and faults doesn’t matter and that becoming free of them is part of the resurrected life. However, Christian teaching has a strong tendency to stress personal renewal to such an extent that horrifyingly sick participation in collective persecution goes unnoticed. That hundreds of thousands of Christians could lynch thousands of black people shows us now, now that the lynching era is over, how easily this sort of group contagion can take over in what is often called an “enlightened” and “civilized” era.

Rather than congratulating ourselves on giving up lynching after roughly a hundred years of the sport, I suggest we take careful note of the growing polarization in our country over social and religious issues. Honest disagreement is not a problem; it’s a good thing, something that keeps us honest. But polarization tends to be conflict for the sake of conflict so that conflict feeds itself and it feeds each one of us. Never mind that polarized conflict is as nourishing to humans as sawdust and glue. What is really dangerous about this polarization is that it easily collapses into collective violence as a way of resolving the tensions.

If we wish to be serious about living the risen life with Christ, we must be baptized by the love and forgiveness of the risen Christ and allow him to gently but firmly remove all the resentments we feed on so as to feed on body and blood of the Lamb of God who reaches out to everybody with vulnerable love.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you be overwhelmed by such a thing in baptism?