A homily for the solemnity of St. John the Baptist
by Abbot Hugh Gilbert OSB (since 2011 Bishop of Aberdeen)
“Some deaths leave a gap that heals over. / Others leave presences”, wrote the poet P. J. Kavanagh. We know what he means, I think.
Today we’re celebrating a birth, unusually a birth of a saint into this life rather than the next. And the genius of the Liturgy, we could say, is to “leave presences” – to evoke them, to leave them with us, in our lives.
But how today, I wonder? Is it only our own spiritual obtuseness, our own disconnection, that leaves us with a sense of John’s remoteness, of a certain – the poet’s word– “gap”?
Let us go looking for him, though.
Here is Elizabeth, an old woman, and suddenly this joy in her life. How good! Israel, old and barren too, and suddenly this new child, “prophet of the most High”, in her life. Suddenly salvation history jerking into motion again. Suddenly this voice in the wilderness, calling Israel back to where she began: the desert – “the dreadful and glorious state of being handed over to God”, as von Balthasar calls it, “the place of the greatest temptation and the greatest nuptial intimacy.” Suddenly this possibility for Israel of going through the Red Sea and over the Jordan again, being baptised for the forgiveness of sins. And one day, under the gathering clouds of wrath, the finger pointing, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold the one who takes away the sins of the world.” The attestation: “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.”
John is the patron, surely, of salutary changes of mind (metanoias), of new beginnings, unexpected joys, of new stirrings of God in our lives. Can’t we call these things his presences?
But more too. “You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” John’s father sang of him today. The Collect echoes this. Many great saints have sobriquets, titles that capture them: Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God; Peter and Paul, apostles; John the Evangelist, and so on. John’s – after “Baptist” – is Precursor, Forerunner. Everything about him – not just what he consciously did, not just his obedience, but everything about him, all the givens in his life, even his conception, even his uterine life, everything he underwent, even, paradoxically, his lack of understanding – everything was a going before the Lord, a preparing of his ways. Everything in him belongs to this, was a service of this. “You are my servant, Israel.” Like Jesus himself, he’s far more than merely a man with a mission. He is a mission personified, embodied. “Gather into one all the voices which went before the Word”, said St Augustine, “and constitute them all in the person of John. He bore the sacramental mystery of them all; he as one man was the sacred and mystical person of all of them.” His whole life carried this immense meaning. It was greater than him. “From my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.” Even John only had glimpses, enough to occasion total loyalty. And for us, in our small way, John is a symbol of just how much meaning mortal man can carry. He points to where that meaning lies: in relationship to Christ. As Pope Benedict often said, we’re not just random products of a blind evolution. Our lives have meaning, logos. And if we have been given a glimpse of this – if there’s been this little crack, called faith, called baptism, in the shell of our grim self-sufficiency – isn’t John leaving his presence? Patron of never despairing, of meaning and joy, even in perplexity, even in diminishment. Every decrease an occasion of increase. God’s predestining first and last.
And then one final thought. “Others leave presences”. John the Forerunner, John the one who prepares… Doesn’t he suggest someone else? The one who prepares, from the beginning of creation to its transfiguration, the one who hovers over every conception and birth, the one who approaches every human heart, past, present and to come, preparing it for the meeting with Christ… The Holy Spirit of God. “Mary, Icon of the Spirit, Icon of the Church” is the title of a fine little book on Mary. But one could give the same title to a book on John. John doesn’t just throw us forward to Jesus. He reminds us of the Holy Spirit. He was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and danced. He saw the Holy Spirit come on Jesus when he baptised him. And we pray today for the “grace of spiritual joys”, joys given by the Holy Spirit. John, icon of the Spirit, the Spirit who prepares us. “Across the immensity of time and the disconcerting multiplicity of individuals”, wrote Teilhard de Chardin, “one single operation is taking place: the annexation to Christ of his chosen; one single thing is being made: the mystical body of Christ, starting from all the fragile spiritual powers scattered throughout the world.” And by whom? Who is annexing his chosen to Christ? Who is gathering the scattered? Who is turning the hearts of fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just? Who was it who enabled John to prepare others for Christ and his Body? “Others leave presences”. So is it the presence of the Spirit John most leaves? Is this the connection? “The mystery of John is being fulfilled in the world even now,” wrote Origen. Yes, fulfilled by the Spirit – purifying, enlightening, uniting –leading us to the Lamb. In the Spirit John prepared a people for Christ’s first coming. May we be prepared by the Spirit, prepare one another, help prepare the world for when he comes again.