TODAY IS THE FEAST OF THE NATIVITY OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST. John is the precursor or forerunner of Jesus. Today we might call him an advance man. In school I was taught that John was the pinnacle of the Old Testament, the last of the prophets, the holy man who linked Old and New Testaments.
He's so important that there are still other feasts commemorating aspects of his life: his martyrdom by beheading on August 29. And in the Eastern Church, the Feast of his Conception on September 24 and the Feast of the Discovery of his relics on October 12. Of course, he appears prominently in the account of Jesus' Baptism in early January.
The Church takes life very seriously and so John's Conception and Birth matter and are cause for joy. A woman becomes a mother when she conceives, not when she gives birth. Maternity clothes comes from the Latin word mater, which means mother. I've met women who have had a keen sense of whether it was boy or girl early on in the pregnancy, even before technology confirmed one way or the other. Women have baby showers not fetus showers. At conception there comes into existence something new and unique. Woman-instinct gives us more than a few clues acknowledging this.
John's parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were older, beyond the time it was thought pregnancy could occur. Zechariah is sitting in the bottom right of the icon writing the baby's name, John, ending the dispute which left him speechless. Three happy women-friends are on hand to help, as women so often do when there's need. Is the friend on the right bringing a piece of watermelon to the table? The one nearest Elizabeth might be saying, "Not to worry about a thing; everything will be just fine."
When women gather to form these micro-communities of help, the world is well. I visited a young woman once who was under the care of home-hospice. When I arrived to offer the prayers for the dying, the woman's friends were busy cleaning, cooking, washing, reminiscing. They all wept and gathered close around her bed in tender support.
Some days later at the funeral, I greeted the casket at the door of the church. Mourners stood in close circles four and five deep. In the initial prayer there are the words, "On the day of her baptism, our sister put on Christ..." remembering when she was formally dressed in white as a baby. That's the point at which the pallbearers place a white cloth-covering over the casket, symbolic of the baptism gown. But having said this, there was a lull, as if the men missed their cue, no one moved to place the pall.
Then suddenly there was a silent movement all around, and those same four caring women, from a few days ago came forward, unfolded the pall and simultaneously lifted it open, forming a pocket of air beneath it - as if they were spreading a picnic blanket, fluffing a quilt or a table cloth for a dining room table.
We'll see women of this kind again at the end of the Jesus story, when they show up at the tomb at dawn to complete the burial tasks for Jesus, but will wind up running in the two halves of joy and fear, to announce the happy news of Jesus risen. Thank you, ladies!
In this icon John is grown and has gone to the wilderness where he calls us to a life of repentance. Often in icons of John the Baptist he has fully opened angel wings. He is God's messenger, called an earthly-angel and a heavenly-man.
In the hymn for the feast of John's birth the Eastern Christian sings:
"How shall we call you O prophet? Angel, apostle or martyr: Angel for you have led a non-bodily life. Apostle, for you have taught the nations. Martyr, for you have been beheaded for Christ."
With his right hand, John stands like a preacher in a pulpit, making a precise point. In his left hand he holds an open scroll with his repentance-call. He stands brightly on the desert rocks, against the silvery background.
He wears a camel skin and an outer blanket-like covering called a himation. In the bottom left of the icon is the little bush with the axe laid against it, calling to mind the verse found in Matthew 3: 2,10: "Repent! for the Kingdom of Heaven is coming...But the axe is already lying at the roots of the trees. Any tree that fails to produce good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire."
We might want to make short-shrift of a verse like this. Perhaps we don't understand it or we might understand it just enough to make us uncomfortable. Or we might think it's about someone else: the Jews, the Muslims, the atheists, the gays, the Chinese, the abortionists, the heterodox Catholics.
Repent is a word that calls for the transformation of our minds. This is a very important aspect of religion that often goes unrecognized, unaddressed, even unaccepted. "I'm not into this justice stuff," one church lady professes. What's that? That the poor have a place at the table? That each person has basic rights? That a certain capitalism can be sinful?
Transformation means - to a new form. "But we have the mind of Christ, Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:16. Another translation says: "But we share the thoughts of Christ." YIKES! Dare we inquire as to what those thoughts of Christ might be? And that they might have to do with things other than sex and being nice?
This new mind is not new doctrines, or old ones rigorously applied, but a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing myself and the world, a new understanding of my purpose. Maybe it's allowing for a new way for God to be God! It's about a new love, which ought not to be confused with sentiment. Father Pedro Arrupe speaks of it this way:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
Many people think and even self-assuredly say, "I'm fine just the way I am; take it or leave it." No, we're not fine just the way we are. Some Catholic youngsters were confounded by the story from the life of Saint Benedict when the resentful monks poisoned the sacramental wine the saint would drink. Or the parish, religious order or rectory that's all pulled apart with bickering and power-seeking. Or the new pope acknowledging corruption at the highest levels of the Church, warning the young clerical diplomats against careerism and the priests against becoming collectors of antiques and novelties. We would hope for a greater transformation.