The Pointing Prophet

John-the-Baptist-Matthias-Grunewald-1024x908This Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John 1:29-42 begins with John the Baptist saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s an affirmation that John repeats again when he sees Jesus the next day. This text is the subject of Matthias Grunewald’s famous picture of John the Baptist at the foot of the Cross pointing at Jesus, with the Lamb of God looking on, in the Isenheim Altarpiece.

It was through Karl Barth that I discovered the image, he refers to it several times in the Dogmatics and it is the featured front piece in his biography. In the Grunewald image Karl Barth famously saw the “hand of judgment and grace” in the pointing finger of John the Baptist.

But as I have contemplated the image over the years I see in it a message specifically for preachers. The text from John 1 is familiar and comfortable. The phrase “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is an integral part of the liturgy. The metaphor “lamb of God” has so many great preaching possibilities. It’s easy to get lost in the potential of John the Baptist as a character and the phrase as a literary springboard.

And this is always the temptation for the preacher. How many times have I heard that someone attends a church because the pastor is such a great preacher? (Actually, I heard it again yesterday afternoon smoking with some other pastors and priests at the local cigar lounge.) How seductive is it for the preacher to put all his energy into a great sermon because great preaching gets exactly that result?

But in the Isenheim Altarpiece we see a glimpse of authentic preaching. Truly great preaching operates on two levels. On the one hand it is “beautiful” in the sense that it is accessible, understandable, winsome, and attuned to the subject at hand. This is the spotless lamb at the prophet’s feet. But at the same time great preaching is terrifying (and here I have in mind the original meaning of “awesome” – full of awe) because our God is an awesome God. And if the message comes across in the treacly manner that the cloying praise chorus of the same name comes across, preaching has utterly missed its mark.

Reality is a point in life that is sometimes mystery, sometimes utter befuddlement, sometimes happy, sometimes terror, and often very ugly. Reality is a point where life actually lived encounters the true God who is seemingly inaccessible because he is encountered at that point of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness. Great preaching is pointing to that very spot of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness and showing that God-in-Christ is right there in the midst of it. This is the disfigured and pock-marked Jesus hanging on the cross, weighted down so heavily with our burdens that the cross-piece on which he is hanging bends toward the earth.

And the congregation? They don’t even seem to realize the pointing prophet exists. They are on the other side of that radix of reality looking upon Christ weeping (with horror? with sadness? with joy? No, all three!), because at this specific point where they find themselves, God-in-Christ truly dwells, as revealed in the truly great sermon.

Later (in John 3), John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is indeed what we see in the Isenheim Altarpiece, and precisely what truly great preaching embodies.

Pandas and Prophets

Juan Rodriguez, panda keeper at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is evidently fond of belittling people who like pandas in his public speeches. In the speech I heard, he insisted that there was nothing special about pandas. They’re even quite ordinary among bears. In the larger scheme of things, pandas could disappear, and the universe would barely notice.

Bats and slugs, on the other hand, are vital to the earth. If they disappeared, the earth’s ecosystem would simply fall apart and it would be disastrous on a global scale. People who love pandas and ignore bats and slugs or miss the big picture are shallow and insipid.

Of course all of this was said with tongue firmly planted in his cheek. While this sort of banter is part of his regular spiel, he is, in truth, a loud defender of pandas. They are indeed a minor cog in the environmental structure and do in fact contribute little to the greater good, but it is also true that they are cute. His hope is that a few of thousands of people who adore pandas will mature into actual environmentalists that care about the whole environment and not just the cute stuff.

It was Jesus’ take on the John the Baptist that reminded me of Juan Rodriguez riffing on panda fans. John, of course, was the opposite of cute, but he provided spectacle and entertainment in much the same way Bao Bao and Bei Bei entertain the visitors to the National Zoo. In both cases there is a much larger and more important story going on, but there is evidence that most of the crowd went to watch the crazy prophet guy, not for his message, but for the outrageous things he had to say.

When a character such John comes along, we tend to get distracted and miss the point. But Jesus didn’t want them to miss the point.

Jesus turned to the crowds and asked, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?”

John was anything but this. He was unbending, opinionated and loud in those opinions.

“What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes?”

In these two sentences Jesus sums up the essence of the spectacle of John the Baptist by describing the exact opposite. John was crazy prophet guy dressed in camel’s hair and who probably smelled bad, but who was loudly opinionated in an utterly politically incorrect manner. In short, a great spectacle to fill a slow Saturday afternoon.

And note that Jesus never denies nor condemns the spectacle. That is indeed who John was. But John wasn’t just a spectacle.

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

The world is full of pandas and spectacle. And the world is better for it. But we need to listen to Juan Rodriguez and Jesus. The point is neither pandas nor an early version of reality television. The point of Advent is that something far greater is coming. John is pointing at something. Heaven and earth will be united in Christ. When John points at Christ in the iconography, Jesus tells us he’s not pointing at Jesus, but rather the Kingdom, that is the union of heaven and earth in the God who became human, Jesus Christ. We will never fix this crazy world in which we live, but our very selves can be united with God’s very self and a transformation will begin that will imbue all creation with divine life. The lame will leap like a deer and the waters will break forth in the desert.

But maybe we missed all that because we are typically too busy looking at pandas and the crazy prophet John.

And once we learn to and begin to participate in this thing that is coming, we can in turn mediate it outward to a creation that is in desperate need of this new thing. John was greater than all who came before because he saw what was coming.

And it leaves us with a question: This season are we looking at John? Or are we looking outward in the direction he is pointing?

A Feast of Joyful Sorrow

Today (Aug 29) on the Orthodox church calendar is the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner. It’s an odd feast in that it’s the only feast in the Orthodox Church that I know of that is commemorated by a strict fast rather than a feast. John the Forerunner is an important figure in Orthodoxy. He represents the end of the Old Covenant (while Mary represents the beginning of New Covenant). It’s in the contrast between John and Mary that we can appreciate this odd Feast/Fast day.

There is a wonderful oral tradition about Thomas and Mary at the time of her death. Mary was human exactly like all the rest of us, and because she is human like the rest of us, she died like the rest of us. After her death and funeral, the disciples sealed her in her tomb (the traditional means of burying people at that time and place). The story is that Thomas was several days late to the funeral (just as he was several days late to Jesus’ resurrection appearances). Against the other disciples’ advice, he insisted that the tomb be unsealed so he could offer his final farewell to her body. (Christians, because Jesus Christ both created and then recreated creation, give great honor to the physical world as the place where God works, thus Christians give great honor to dead bodies.) When they opened the tomb so Thomas could properly honor it, her body was gone. The tradition is that her body was translated to heaven in a manner similar to Enoch and Elijah.

The theological point of this tradition is that it illustrates the staggering significance of the incarnation. Because of Christ, everything is changed. Not only are our souls saved, but all creation is transformed, including our bodies. Heaven is not a spiritual place somewhere out there, it is, as John describes it in the Apocalypse, a new heaven and a new earth with all of us feasting eternally at the Banquet of the Lamb.

And just as Mary’s ending is befitting the first Christian, the first person of the New Covenant, so John the Forerunner’s end is befitting the end of the Old Covenant and the old order of the world. Sinfulness is seemingly woven into the very fabric of the created order (that is, the old order) and does not give up without a fight. Jesus compared the end of the age to the time of Noah (ie, the flood) and Sodom and Gomorrah (ie, fire falling from the sky). This idea of a watery and fiery end of the world as we have come to know it speaks to the violence involved in extricating God’s good creation (the emergence of the New Covenant) from grip of evil. This salvation that God brings to the world is, from this perspective, a terrible thing.

John the Forerunner’s death by beheading, brought about by the whims of infighting in a wicked ruling family who ultimately manipulated a young (“innocent”?) girl into requesting this gruesome death, is a perfect metaphor for the end of this age. It is terrible and savage, and yet it is necessary so that all can be made new. It is why the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner is the only feast in the Orthodox Church celebrated, not with feasting, but with a strict fast. We joy at that which is to come even as we weep and wail at how it must be accomplished.

So, may you have joyful sorrow on this, the most odd of feast days, commemorating John the Forerunner’s terrible death.

 

A Word About Losing One’s Head

Today, Aug. 29, is an important Feast Day in the whole Christian Church (except Protestantism, which generally does not observe feasts at all): The Commemoration of the Beheading of John the Forerunner, also called John the Baptist. It is a feast that is commemorated by fasting rather than feasting because of the grief the Church expresses for the violent death of this last Old Testament martyr.

Icon of Beheading  of St John the Forerunner

Icon of Beheading of St John the Forerunner

While it is a solemn commemoration, it remains a happy feast, in spite of the death of John. As the invitation to evening prayer on this day says (in the Liturgy of the Hours), “Let us pray joyfully to God our Father who called John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of Christ.” And so even though we face what would normally be frightful – the fact of martyrdom – we do so with both joy and confidence because it is God who leads us, even when the path goes into darkness as deep as this. As the first antiphon proclaims, “Do not be afraid to face them, for I am with you, says the Lord.”

We had school yesterday (Saturday) at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy (or, CHA). In order to get the required number of academic days the school has four Saturday school days each year. They are always theme days. Yesterday was called Sam Mason Day. Sam Mason is an almost unknown criminal who pirated steam ships and barges along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers at the turn of the century shortly after the American Revolutionary War. When a $7,000 reward was offered for Mason, dead or alive, his gang killed him, and not unlike Salome (Herodias’ daughter – Mt. 14:6) cut off his head, and brought the bodiless head to the sheriff’s office at the next town south of Port Gibson, MS to receive the prize. (The gang was recognized and subsequently arrested instead of getting the reward.)

CHA has a bronze statue of Sam Mason’s head mounted along the road about 150 or 200 yards from the dining facility. When a cadet breaks a rule (talking when in formation, not having his uniform in proper order, etc.) he is told to “run to the road,” whereupon he runs out to the bronze bust and dope slaps Sam Mason’s head. Upon returning, he stands at attention before his commanding officer and shouts, “Actions have consequences, sir!”

Okay, it’s kind of a corny story and a corny tradition. But the whole thing is memorable for adolescents, so it’s an effective form of discipline.

Of course, being good Evangelical Protestants, the administration and teaching staff are oblivious to the fact that every year Sam Mason Day (the first Saturday of the CHA academic year) is always very near Aug. 29 (the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner).

Here at CHA losing one’s head is always considered a bad thing. This is why the cadets dope slap Sam Mason every time they do something dopey. After all, “actions have consequences.”

Ironically, as an Orthodox Christian who is aware of the Feast of the Beheading of John the Forerunner, I too confess that “actions have consequences,” but in a very different context. As Jesus warned his disciples, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

One of the lessons we learn from St. John the Forerunner is that it’s not a bad thing to lose one’s head if one loses it for the sake of the Gospel. A second thing we learn from St. John the Forerunner is that if you are dopey enough to become a Christian (this statement being stated from the worldly perspective), and if you actually live your life like a Christian, then you should assume that the world will hate you and you too might lose your head. The world hated Jesus. So if you are a follower of Jesus it only makes sense that the world will hate you also. Actions (even holy actions) have consequences.

But, when as a Christian, I get my focus off myself and on to Jesus Christ where it belongs … when I am transformed into a servant of God rather than a servant of my own will and desires, I discover that losing one’s head is not always a bad thing.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” [ Rev. 7:13-17]