John the Baptizer

The Further Beauty of the Epiphany

Everyday, people are tortured and killed because of their religious and political beliefs. Many of them are Christians, who are willing to die rather than renounce their faith.

This has been true throughout history, and it is a poignant aspect of the Christmas and Epiphany Gospels. Peter Koenig’s wonderful tryptic painting, Christmas—Epiphany, helps make this clear. The death of Jesus is intimately connected with the death and anticipated resurrection of others. The Lamb that was slain becomes the Temple at the center of the New Jerusalem, from which the rivers of the water of life flow. The wine at the wedding at Cana prefigures the same supernatural refreshment for which St. Stephen was willing to die. And the Twelve Days of Christmas also include Holy Innocents’ Day, the feast commemorating those killed by Herod in his search to eliminate the baby Jesus as a potential rival. Jesus’ Baptism declares his vocation, a vocation which involves each of these things and more.

An equally real but more subtle threat is increasingly evident in our society ~ radical secularism. When the culture around us no longer supports our religious faith, it becomes intolerant. People then begin to act with hostility against us. As a result, at least two things happen. We soften our religious commitments so we fit-in better with others. And, we lose confidence that the Gospel has world-wide significance, for all human beings. As a result, we draw back from practicing our faith, a faith that has public implications. We then retreat to private beliefs that now only have personal and spiritual meaning.

Think for a moment about John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” The Greek behind these words has sweeping implications. For God so loved the cosmos (the whole creation), that he gave his only Son… in order that the cosmos might be saved through him. In other words, for John, the Gospel has universal implications, not just personal, spiritual significance. This is a gospel for which we might be willing to die, precisely because it is first of all a gospel for which we are willing to live.

It is imprecise and misleading therefore to say that ‘faith changes the world.’ Instead, we should say that God changes the world, in part through people of faith. We have faith in the God who created, and then inhabited, the whole cosmos. And, God has acted for the sake of the whole cosmos.

 

Peter Koenig’s painting is reproduced here with the artist’s kind permission. This and other examples of his religious artwork can be seen by visiting the website of his parish church, where much of it is displayed (click here).  This post is based on my homily for The Baptism of Christ, January 13, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Paradoxical Beauty of Hope

 

As all four Gospels attest, John the Baptizer’s ministry occurs in the wilderness around the Jordan River. This requires people to go out to him. James Tissot’s painting of the scene nicely captures the drama of their interaction. For as the artist depicts, people do not casually encounter John in the public square or marketplace, but out in a barren region to which they deliberately have to travel. Therefore, in addition to those who have come out with malice, many journey to John with a genuine curiosity and a sincere spirit of inquiry.

Luke reports how John greets these people in an apparently hostile way: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” As we see in the painting, among them are various officials and soldiers. Surprisingly, they don’t turn and leave when they perceive the prophet’s scorn. Instead, they respond with a question: “What then should we do?” To which John responds with concise, practical —but also unexpected— advice. He does not tell the tax collectors to stop serving the infidel foreign regime occupying their historic lands. Nor does John tell the soldiers to abandon their compromised relationship with the Roman-supported local authorities. Instead, he counsels them on how to behave ethically, while they remain in their present roles! Astonishing!

And John says all this in the context of predicting the Coming One, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This will be the true Messiah, who will manifest his vocation by wielding a “winnowing fork in his hand.” He will “clear the threshing floor and… gather the wheat into his granary; [while] the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Paradoxically, Luke refers to these dramatic and threatening predictions as the proclamation of good news.

The appointed Lectionary readings from Paul and Luke, for the third Sunday of Advent, complement a reading from Zephaniah. For the prophet speaks of “the king of Israel, the Lord” who is in our midst ~ “a warrior who gives victory,” and who renews us in his love. Zephaniah urges us to rejoice, and not to fear, while he points to the implications of God’s mission for the world. Prefiguring Paul’s later words in Philippians 4, which encourage us to rejoice and not fear anything, Zephaniah challenges us to practice the virtue of hope. Like faith and charitable love, hope is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Though it is a gift, we need to put it into practice. Hope, faith and charitable love are therefore more than feelings, more than passing sentiments. And we should expect to see these beautiful signs of the Spirit’s movement in our churches. We notice them as we are lifted up by a rising tide ~ the rising tide of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our midst.

 

This post is based on my homily for Advent 3, December 16, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.