Sunday, June 24, 2018

Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist

In 1971 a new rock-musical burst forth Off-Broadway, eventually traveling to Broadway and throughout the world.  It was, and is, very different from most Broadway offerings of the past, and is radically different from today's productions.  After a run of over 2000 performances off-Broadway it went on tour and was eventually made into a movie--though it is better as a stage musical than it is on the screen. Thus "Godspell: A Musical Based on the Gospel of St. Matthew" entered American life.  

Rather than an standard overture the show opens with the sound of the shofar—an appropriate beginning given that Matthew wrote his gospel for a  Jewish-Christian community that would have responded viscerally to its simultaneously haunting and harsh sound.  Then, a lone male voice intones: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  He repeats these words four times.  A soft organ accompaniment enters for repetitions three and four.  Then the organ, electric guitars, drums and the cast explode singing:  PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD.  The cast dances and sings its way down the aisles and jumps onto the stage all the while continuing the sing.  

Flash forward to the finale, a highly stylized depiction of Jesus' passion, crucifixion, and death on the cross.  Midway through the scene when the tension has become unbearable, one hears a mournful chant sung in a hoarse almost strangled voice, the voice of Jesus: "O God I'm dying."  After a few riffs on the electric guitar one hears, "Oh God I'm dead" as the chorus answers, "Oh God, you're dead."

The women of the chorus then begin softly, “Long live God”  in a variation on the melody of the opening chant. Then the men enter singing "Prepare ye the way of the Lord." The two chants bounce off each other in the manner of medieval antiphonal chant. 

Long live God.
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.

The chants augment each other, weaving together until once again 
the guitars, drums, organ, and singers explode in a delirious celebration that ends with the words that began the show: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Who was this herald? Who was the man who came to be known as John the Baptist?  John was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah and a relative of some sort to Jesus. He was the herald par excellence.  He was the bridge from Old Testament to New and the voice crying out in the desert. John is the model for all those called to be heralds announcing and proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord, that is all of us in some fashion.  He is the model for those who are called, and accept, the call to prepare the way of the Lord. 

Fortunately, we have testimony about him from multiple sources. Luke’s Gospel places John’s appearance around A.D. 27.  He appears in the other two synoptic gospels as well as in John.  He is also mentioned in the Antiquitiesof Josephus, a gentile historian who lived from about A.D. 37 to 100.  He wrote about John as follows: “He was a good man who exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows, and piety toward God, and in so doing to join in baptism.  In John’s view this way of life was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God.  Baptism was not to be employed to gain pardon for sins, but as a consecration of the body after the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.”  He was a man who did not hesitate to name sin for what it was. That fearlessness cost him his life at the hands a Herod who was moved to homicide by the rage of his "wife" Herodius, when John named the illicit immoral union she had entered into with her brother-in-law for what it was: sin. 

John is oftentimes depicted as something between a drugged-out hippie and a wild-eyed lunatic, looking something like the pagan-baby wannabes who cavort around Stonehenge annually around the time of this solemnity.  Mostly he comes across as a very practical man.  

It is written that John dressed in animal skins and subsisted on a diet of locusts and wild honey.  John’s clothing was no different from that of any other desert dweller.  The fur was necessary for warmth during cold desert nights.  And his diet had nothing to do with radical veganism, a misplaced ethic of animal "rights", or a penchant for weird food like the fat guy--or perhaps it is better to say, one of the fat guys--on the Food Channel.  John's diet reflected the need to maintain ritual purity in his diet.  In contemporary terms one can say that he kept a kosher kitchen.  In the end, however, his dress and diet are irrelevant.  His message, on the other hand, is as relevant today as it was for the ancient Jews who sought him out.  As Josephus noted, he “exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows, and piety toward God.”  

Leading righteous lives.
Practicing justice toward others. 
Showing piety toward God. 

There is no better way for us to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist and simultaneously prepare for the Nativity of Our Lord six months from today.
The photo below is from this morning.  It is the bell tower at the Charterhouse of the Transfiguration.  Very foggy from about the roof line on up to the bells.  The bells are rung by hand to signal the important parts of the day.  When the angelus rings a monk stops what he is doing, kneels, and bows to kiss the floor each of the three times it rings.  It is a deeply consoling action.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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