Sunday’s Readings: Is. 49: 1-6; Ps. 138: 1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15; Acts 13:22-26; Lk. 1:57-66, 80
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The liturgy this morning focuses on vocation, prophecy, and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin. This is an important day because John’s ministry highlights faith as a subversive activity. His birthday calls us to adopt such faith in the midst of pedophile scandals, devaluation of women, official support of right-wing politics, and absence of visionary leadership on the part of those who hold the highest ecclesiastical offices.
To grasp what I mean, begin by considering the Christianity we’ve inherited and its view of Jesus in relation to John the Baptist. Like most matters of faith, we have it backwards. Our understanding begins with Pope Benedict XVI and then runs to the Second Vatican Council, the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Paul, and ends with Jesus. That line gives us a church-centered Jesus concerned with esoteric doctrines and above all with the sexual preoccupation that has traditionally afflicted our patriarchal church officials.
A more biblical approach begins in the other direction. It runs from Adam to Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, John, and finally to Jesus. It knows nothing of what comes after Jesus with all of its distortions, misconceptions, and patriarchal abuses. The Jesus that emerges here is not at all church-centered. He is less “Christian” and more focused on the Jewish tradition which is what Jesus knew. Jesus of course, was a Jew, not Christian at all. That more biblical approach helps us see both John and Jesus as engaged with their world specifically as prophets – as possessors of a subversive charism sorely needed by our world in severe crisis and in a church that finds itself in irreversible decline.
Already in today’s second reading, we see the more domesticated understanding of John emerging in Paul whose letters represent the earliest entries we have in the Christian Testament. Paul’s vision is what most of us are familiar with. For Paul, Jesus was the Son of David. John the Baptist heralded his coming as Messiah. He groveled before Jesus at the River Jordan when Jesus came to be baptized. “I am not worthy to loosen the strap of your sandal,” he says “You should be baptizing me; I shouldn’t be baptizing you.” For Paul, John ends up being purely instrumental for Jesus.
Paul’s view finds elaboration in the four canonical Gospels. There we can get the impression of the prophet as a kind of first century Billy Graham out there in the desert. His concern with Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife makes him sound rigidly moralistic and focused on sex – just the way the Church’s teaching has been all these years.
That’s not the John who emerges if we put him in that biblical context running from Adam through Moses, and the prophets. It’s not the John who discloses himself if we consider his historical context. In that perspective John becomes Jesus’ mentor and even his rival. In a sense, he becomes the founder of a Christian movement that understood faith as synonymous with religious and political subversion.
I mean John was a prophet before anything else – a reformer of Judaism. In today’s Gospel, Luke says John grew up in the desert. And that’s where he later realizes his vocation as a sharp-tongued social critic – the essence of prophetic identity. In the desert John led a flourishing reformist sect. As Luke says, people from all over Palestine came to listen to him. His message wasn’t that of Benedict XVI or Billy Graham. Rather, it was the one Jesus took up after John’s execution by King Herod, the Roman puppet. “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (The Kingdom of God, remember, is what the world would look like if God, not Caesar were king.)
John’s location in the desert wilderness is important for understanding the Jewish revival he was leading there. The desert was the original place of refuge for God’s people when they escaped from their first captivity in Egypt. It was the spawning place for insurgency movements against the Romans who occupied Palestine in the first century.
Above all, the desert was not Jerusalem. It was not the temple. So Jewish religious authorities were deeply suspicious of John and hostile towards his movement. John was not one of them — not a priest or rabbi. He was an outspoken prophet operating at the margins of society. He was radically free from social obligations and expectations as defined by standard Judaism and by the Roman Empire. Literally, he was an outlaw (one living outside the law). Even his clothing and diet showed that.
Additionally, John’s criticism of Herod was seen as politically subversive. One of Herod’s great rivals was a king called Aretas of Nabatea. Herod had divorced Aretas’ sister in order to marry the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. The people were outraged, and took that marriage issue as a cause of criticism and rebellion. Their concern was not inspired by some first century anticipation of Victorian “moral” scruples. Herod’s divorce and remarriage showed how much their supposed king had strayed from their own culture and had adopted the Roman oppressors’ ways.
John sided with the people in their criticism. So Herod saw him as stirring up rebellion. He therefore had John arrested. Eventually, of course, he beheaded the prophet. That’s when Jesus then stepped in and took over John’s reform movement.
Jesus seems to have been completely devoted to John. In all the Gospel traditions he presents himself for baptism at John’s hands. The appearance of inferiority implied in that gesture is unmistakable. So the Gospel authors had to reverse that impression by that groveling I mentioned earlier. This was especially true since even forty years after the Baptist’s beheading, many still thought of him as the Christ. What I’m saying is that “Jesus Christianity” found a rival for itself in “Johannine Christianity”
But despite their desire to emphasize Jesus’ superiority to John, the Gospel authors find themselves compelled to recall that baptism of Jesus at John’s hands. They also record that Jesus lauded John as the greatest of all the Jewish Testament prophets. Even more significantly, they associate Jesus’ message so closely with that of John the Baptist that Jesus is repeatedly understood both by his enemies and his disciples as John redivivus (come back from the dead). Some even see in Jesus’ final cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!” as a cry to John (himself as Elijah redivivus), “John, John, why have you forsaken me?”
All of that is to say that John and Jesus are like twins inseparably joined at the hip. And what does that mean for us?
It means that Christianity (Jesus or Johannine) must be prophetic. Remember though what biblical prophets were. They were not fortune tellers concerned with predicting the future. They were social critics with two tasks. The first was to denounce serious departures from the faith of Abraham and Moses. Their second function was to announce a new future – that another way of living out the Jewish faith was possible. That way stood in sharp contrast with the understanding of Judaism embraced by their chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees.
Being prophetic today suggests that we open our eyes to the similarities between the situations of John and Jesus on the one hand and our own on the other. Both prophets found themselves involved with a faith that had sold out to the Romans, and their puppets (like Herod). It was a faith that identified with keeping arcane rules and social distinctions.
For John and Jesus, that had nothing to do with the faith that had begun in the desert outside of Egypt. In their eyes, it was time to move back to the desert, away from the temple, and reclaim their faith from corrupt “leaders.”
I’m suggesting that our church today has moved as far from the Gospel of Jesus and John as had the high priests and scribes of their day moved from the tradition of Abraham and Moses.
Isn’t it time for us to move back to the origins of the prophetic traditions we celebrate this day – returning in effect to the place where it all began. For John and Jesus that was the desert – away from the temple. For us, it’s home churches and lay-led liturgies like those that characterized the primitive Christian community.
In the subversive spirit of John the Baptist, we’ve got to let the corrupt Vatican and our local bishops know that we are no longer following them, no longer supporting them. There are many ways of doing that.
Can you think of any? (Discussion follows)