A few years ago, one of our leaders introduced us to a series of reflections by Dr. Geza Grosschmid, a member of the Order who lived in the last century. In many ways he struck me as more than a little eccentric, but what he had to say was quite informative and – more to the point – quite touching. His reflections on John the Baptist are quite remarkable because they cement John as the foundation for our spirituality. Our author states that what ought to get our attention is John’s fearless voice,
St. John was a model of intransigence, supporting the divine rights scorned by human passions. Nothing stopped him; he was unafraid of powers, or honors, or wealth, or danger, or prison, or death. He accomplished his duty, whatever price it cost. He spoke, since his weapon was the word, forcefully and vehemently. (p. 149)
The Prayer of the Order reminds us of our obligation “to practice and defend” the faith against the enemies of religion. It would be hard to find a more eloquent example than John the Baptist, who was willing to challenge the clergy in the crowds who came to hear him as a “brood of vipers!” But the point of our voice is not simply to admonish. It is also to instruct. And one of the early Church fathers writes of John’s voice crying out in the wilderness so
…that the soul which has abandoned God may be recalled to the…way of the Lord [which] is made straight through contemplation; revealing itself in truth, and without mingling of error, and in deeds that conform with right reason, and which, after due reflection, are seen to be lawful. (Origen)
At the same time, John is a model of humility. Not some cringing dullard suffering from a low self-image, but someone fully aware of who he is, and what he has been sent to do. Which is to prepare the way for Someone who is far greater.
Gregory the Great preached about the nobility of this task. He said that preaching paves the way so that the Lord can come and “make his dwelling-place in our minds.”
First come the words that exhort us, and then by means of them truth is received in the mind…And so we make a highway for him…when we preach his glory…so that when he comes afterward, [he] may enlighten [our minds] through the presence of his love….
Pray that our tongues may never grow weary in the task of exhorting…lest…our silence should condemn us in the sight of our just judge. (Breviary, October 18th)
In the gospel the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Our Savior replies that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed they could move trees. Then he draws the comparison between us and a servant. He says,
When you have done what you have been commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
What we need to remember here is that Jesus isn’t talking about paid domestic help; he’s talking about a slave, someone who can never put his master in his debt. God’s love for us is so immense that no matter what we do in return we will have done no more than our duty. And if we do no more than our duty, then – like the servant in the gospel – we have done no more than we are obliged to do.
If this were only a matter of service governed by the laws of ownership, there would be more than a hint of surliness in the servant’s reply. But Jesus is talking about a response in love. We may easily be able to satisfy the claims of law, but anyone who’s ever been in love knows that we can never love enough.
I hope I don’t bore you with my continual references to the Church’s early writers. But I’ve been captivated by them since I entered the Dominican novitiate fifty years ago, and it’s really hard for me not to include them. Peter Chrysologus wrote
Love does not reflect; it is unreasonable and knows no moderation. Love refuses to be consoled when its goal proves impossible, despises all hindrances to the attainment of its object. Love destroys the lover if he cannot obtain what he loves…follows its own promptings…inflames desires…But why continue?
It is intolerable for love not to see the object of its longing. That is why whatever they merited was nothing to the saints if they could not see the Lord. (Breviary, 2nd Thursday of Advent)
John the Baptist understands this. He’s telling no more than the truth when he speaks of his unworthiness to unfasten Jesus’ sandals and when he says “I must decrease; he must increase.”
In many ways, we read the gospel backwards, so there’s a whole subtext we miss unless someone points it out to us. I’m not claiming that privilege – I ran across this by accident when I was reading St. John Chrysostom one day – but I was fascinated by some of the conclusions John’s and Jesus’ contemporaries would have drawn when they compared the two.
Here’s John, son of a high priest, a semi-celebrity who has gone off to live by himself in the desert. He suddenly reappears in society and starts paying homage to the unknown son of a carpenter. The religious leaders send common folk to ask Jesus who he is, but they send priests and Levites to ask John who he is. “And not those from anywhere,” Chrysostom notes, “but from Jerusalem, that is, the most honored among them.”
We may take John’s humility for granted, because our belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection informs our reading of the initial chapters of the gospel. But we should try to take a look at the gospel from John’s point of view. St. Augustine says that when the questioners asked whether he was the Christ, if John had said yes, “you can imagine how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke.”
But John made the nice distinction that his questioners could not, and that is the distinction between the voice and the word. The book of Genesis tells us that we were the last word God spoke in the beginning. We were created in God’s own likeness, and since we shared God’s power to speak to get things done, God put us in charge.
The pagan Romans said that when the gods created the first humans they looked down at what they’d done, and one of them asked if they hadn’t created humans too perfectly. One of the others leaned down and picked up two seashells, which he put on either side of the first human’s head, for ears. “By the time a word finishes echoing through all those chambers,” he said, “no two of these creatures will ever agree on the meaning of a single word!”
And that shows the great problem with our words: they can be misunderstood. Worse, we can ignore words or change their meanings. It began in the Garden, when we said “yes,” when we meant “no,” but we’ve been equally inventive over the years, and oxymorons, equivocations, mental reservations, political promises, and, these days, just about any official’s public statements show how well we’ve perverted the power of words to our own ends. John the Baptist reminds us that words are holy because God’s Word became flesh. And we have been given voices to prepare his way.
When the crowds ask John how to do this he replies with some concrete examples – sharing with the less fortunate, using authority carefully, refusing to take advantage of someone weaker than we. John is our fearless model of justice, but here we see him as our model of care for the poor. And his care for “our lords” mirrors that of Jesus.
St. Matthew tells us that when John was in prison, he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was the Messiah or they ought to look for another. Jesus replied,
Go and tell John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them….
St. Jerome remarks that although Jesus mentions the poor last, they are by no means the least significant in this list.
For the poor understand either the poor in spirit, or, without doubt, the poor of this world. So that in the preaching of the gospel there is no distinction between high and low, rich and poor. This proves the impartiality of the Master, the truthfulness of the Instructor, since He seeks without preference the salvation of each one.
There’s a maxim in our theology that tells us the Church believes as it prays. If we look at the liturgical calendar, we see something very interesting about John the Baptist. He is the only individual, other than Jesus and Mary, for whom the Church has set aside days to remember and celebrate both his birth and his death.
Think about this for a moment: we celebrate Jesus’ birthday three days after the shortest day of the year, as our days begin to lengthen. We celebrate John’s birthday three days after the longest – to illustrate his words in the day’s gospel reading, “I must decrease, he must increase.”
You’ve invited a Dominican to offer this reflection on the Spirituality of the Order, so you shouldn’t be surprised that things will eventually turn to the Blessed Virgin. Actually, this isn’t very far-fetched. Both Mary and John spent their lives in service of God’s Word, and the details in the legends that surround the birth of Mary echo those told in the Scripture of John the Baptist.
Both the Scripture and the legends tell of aged couples who, after years of prayer, finally welcomed the birth of children. The career of John the Baptist is well known. We only know the early life of Mary from the legends, which say that when she was three years old her parents took her to Jerusalem, to arrange for her education, and to dedicate her to the Lord. When they arrived at the Temple, the stories go, Mary broke away from them, ran up the stairs, and to the delight of everyone danced before the Lord and those who were assembled to welcome them.
If you look up the word “dance” in the gospel, you’ll see that it occurs exactly three times, and none of times it appears is happy – one describes the dance that leads to the death of John the Baptist. Mary’s dance is not part of the Scripture, but it is a splendid illustration of how – from her earliest childhood – she sets an example for us.
The Prophet Isaiah says, “How beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news.” Notice, it’s the preacher’s feet that are beautiful, not the shoes. Mary shows us what counts. In her youth her feet teach us to offer God a joyful sacrifice of our lives. After the Annunciation, those same feet, we are told, go “with haste” to share the Good News of the Incarnation with her kinswoman Elizabeth.
There’s a poem by Rilke that describes Mary’s response to the angel’s greeting at the Annunciation. The poet says,
It did not scare her that he entered
But that he was so utterly present…
That his gaze and hers, looking up to him collided
As if everything outside had become empty….
This, too, is Mary’s example for us. If we are to gain the strength to defend our faith, and to clarify our vision so we see Christ in the poor and the sick, we must create a cloister in our hearts where God’s gaze and ours can collide. Where the only words we hear are “Will you?” and the only word we can reply is “Yes.
Like John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary is our model in humility. When the angel tells her she is to be the mother of God’s son she says, “Of course. I am, after all, the Lord’s servant.” But later, in the Magnificat, when she speaks of her lowliness as God’s servant, she tells us that to be God’s slave – to give up our will to embrace God’s will – means embracing the promise of sharing in God’s triumphs and his glory.
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