St. John Baptist’s Day, Magdalen College, Oxford
Inasmuch as this sermon ad populum is an annual occurrence on or near the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, I am sure that across the years there has been a thorough exploration of all that the feast and the man himself have to reveal and teach us. Therefore, it is with some degree of trepidation that I set out this morning to add my own contribution to that already vast store. There is, however, a bit of synchronicity at work here, in that this strange and remote figure has presented himself more than once in the turnings of my life. And now, he does so again in this season and on this occasion.
His first “appearance,” if you will, occurred the day after I was ordained to the priesthood. It was on the 24th of June, the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, that with awe and trembling I approached the altar to preside for the first time at a celebration of the Eucharist. Ever after the feast has served to recall me to that first experience of priestly ministry and invite me to ground myself afresh in an awareness of the great privilege and responsibility afforded me of breaking the Bread of Life and blessing the Cup of Salvation.
His next “appearance” was some years later in the course of a difficult ecumenical conference: again, on the feast of John’s nativity. After a somewhat dispiriting morning which had left me feeling out of sorts, following lunch I wandered off for a walk, hoping thereby to alter my mood. My meanderings brought me to a nearby antique shop. The various objects in their cases and scattered about were only of moderate interest until I chanced upon a small Latin American wooden statute of John. As I considered the statue’s rustic and primitive features I had a deep sense that John had been sent to console and encourage me. As you might guess, I returned to the conference with the statue in hand, and in a new frame of mind.
Again, years later, I was on retreat at a monastery in the desert of New Mexico. I had come away from the normal routines of my life in part because I was struggling with questions related to the future shape and direction of my ministry. As I sat quietly in the chapel one afternoon I became aware that in a niche behind me stood a rough hewn representation of the patron of the monastery. It was none other than my old friend John the Baptist. At that moment, seeing the statute reminded me of John’s description of himself in the gospel as the “friend of the bridegroom” who rejoices when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. The bridegroom to whom he referred was, of course, Jesus. “For this reason,” John declared, “my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase but I must decrease.”
The fact that John’s greatest joy was to make way for another touched the heart of the struggle I was having within myself. I realized that the ministry I considered my own was not about me but rather a means of pointing beyond myself and making way for Another. John had given me the insight I needed at that very moment.
As we encounter John in scripture, clothed in camel’s hair and sustained by locusts and wild honey, he is a complex and somewhat paradoxical figure who prepares the way for God’s self-disclosure in the person of Jesus. John continues to be present with us in the communion of saints and to play his role of preparing the way. Men and women, who through their presence and words, turn the soil of our lives and make us ready to receive God’s mystery in fresh ways are continuing in the ministry of John the Baptist.
The commemoration of John’s birth is very ancient. Many centuries ago Saint Augustine of Hippo preached a sermon on the subject in which he made a connection between the feast and the summer solstice. He noted that in the wake of the solstice the length of the days decreases. He also observed that following the winter solstice, which occurs as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the days lengthen. The words of the Baptist, “I must decrease and he must increase,” thus find confirmation in the turnings of the natural world.
It is interesting to note that in the Christian ordering of the Hebrew scriptures the last words before we turn to the gospels are those of the prophet Malachi, through whom God declares “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah” before the day of the Lord comes. Then, in the Gospel of Luke, the angel of the Lord who visits Zechariah, John’s father, declares that the child yet to be born will possess the spirit of Elijah and will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” It is clear too from Jesus’ own words about him that we are to see in the person of John the Baptist the promised return of the prophet Elijah.
And yet, later when John the Baptist is asked directly, “Are you Elijah,” he answers, “I am not.” This discrepancy between Jesus’ view of John and John’s own self understanding suggests that those who serve as forerunners or turners of the soil in our own lives are often not aware of the role they are playing.
T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets observes, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Too much reality – too much new and unprepared for truth – can overwhelm us. We may try to keep it at a distance, push it away or deny its existence in sheer self-defense. We therefore have to be led – bit by bit – into enlargements of perception and understanding which allow us to absorb new dimensions of reality. John the Baptist and others like him thus serve as preparers of the way rather than as ministers of full disclosure. Their task is to ready us for the challenges of new aspects of truth that may, at first, seem foreign or threatening. They dislodge us from our present certitudes and open the way for us to move forward, step-by-step into new realms of growth and discovery.
Here I am put in mind of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John in which he says to his disciples, and thus to succeeding generations: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…He will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
With these words Jesus makes clear that the truth he seeks to reveal through the agency of the Spirit is constantly unfolding in ways which may stretch us but will not exceed our capacity to receive it.
It has taken us centuries to come to our present understandings of the workings of the human body and the causes of various diseases. Our knowledge of the cosmos is still evolving. Science and other disciplines are continuing to discover things unknown or only dimly understood, things veiled in mystery.
The path of divine self-disclosure is not always straight. “Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what God has made crooked!” as we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes. It took centuries for the children of Israel to move beyond their understanding of God as a fierce warrior whose care and concern extended only to them. The specific historical events of deportation and exile expanded their understanding of God’s ways and became the medium for a new awareness that God’s care and concern extended to the Gentiles as well.
So too with us. The specific historical events of our lives challenge us, stretch us and break us open in order for new dimensions of truth to find a home in us. For example, I think of how my views on the ordination of women have changed because of events and encounters within my own life. In 1964, now some 44 years ago, while serving as a curate in a large parish near Philadelphia, I was assigned to serve as chaplain to Episcopal students at a nearby women’s college. At a weekly discussion group a young woman asked: “Can women be ordained to the priesthood?” “Of course not,” I replied, laughing at what I then considered to be the ridiculousness of the question. At that time I felt no need to pursue the matter any further.
Several years later as the church began to discuss the possibility of women’s ordination I found myself of two minds. Part of me could see the reasonableness and rightness of such a possibility while the other part felt that the catholic tradition within Anglicanism which had shaped me was being threatened by such a possibility.
At about that time I had become rector of a small parish. One day a young woman I had recently baptized and presented for confirmation came to see me in my office. She told me that she wished to enroll in a theological college, but she did not believe she was called to be ordained. Under those terms I wrote a letter of recommendation for her. A year later she returned and shared with me her sense that she was called to be a priest. She was so clear and forthright, and faithful in what she set before me, that I was obliged to accept the validity of her call.
She was subsequently ordained deacon and priest and is now a bishop. I have always been grateful for the fact that her presence helped me to see that what had been for me an abstract theological question was an authentic and faithful response to a sense of call. Her journey became my journey as well, in which my limited understanding of God’s ways was expanded to embrace something new.
The truth of which Jesus speaks is not confined to a religious sphere. It is truth in all its manifestations. Inasmuch as the second person of the Trinity, whom we know as Jesus the Incarnate Word, is described both in scripture and creed as the agent of creation – the One through whom all things have come into being – the truth of which Jesus speaks is to be found everywhere and in all things. The divine imagination knows no limits.
For persons of faith, truth is also a matter of relationship: more specifically relationship with Christ, who declares himself to be the Truth – the Truth apprehended not by way of cognition alone but by way of love, a love worked into the depths of our being by the Holy Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts, thereby making it possible for us to love. We must, therefore, be ever expectant and ready to receive, by way of “hints and guesses” as Eliot has it, the One who is the truth and seeks through the motions of the Spirit to dwell among us and within us.
Apprehending truth, therefore, involves not only the mind but also the heart: the heart understood in its biblical sense as the core and center of our personhood and not simply the seat of emotion. We might say then that the function of a university and its halls and colleges is to educate both the mind and the heart in such a way that what St. Augustine of Hippo calls “the taste for truth” is nurtured within its students. It is this taste for truth that then carries them beyond the formality of their university years and renders them expectant and permeable to new manifestations of truth.
In this regard I note the practice of this University in allowing graduates, after a certain period, to supplicate for the Master of Arts Degree. Additional formal education is not required. Rather, what they have learned in the course of their university years is allowed to mature and bear fruit through various experiences and challenges that lie beyond the boundaries of the university.
We might say then that one of the functions of the university is to play the role of John the Baptist – that is to prepare the way and to sensitize minds and hearts to be ready for encounters with ever unfolding truth which may disconcert and unsettle, as well as surprise and enrich.
Let us give thanks this day for John the Baptist, and for those who play the role of John the Baptist in our own lives, though they may not appear to us in camel’s hair eating locusts and wild honey. They may, in fact, be colleagues, students, teachers, spouses or friends. They may be companions of our heart or fierce critics. The divine imagination can make use of any and all to draw us beyond the confines of our present knowing into the vast forcefield of a truth that is ever expanding and unfolding, ever old and ever new.