What manner of child shall this be?
The birth and death of John the Baptist frame our summer sojournings. His nativity is celebrated just after the summer solstice; his death in late August, in the days of the closing down of summer, we might say, at least here in the Maritimes! Both celebrations are grounded in the witness of the Scriptures. Moreover, his nativity has a special cultural relevance for Canadians as marking the anniversary of the landing of John Cabot in Newfoundland in 1497 and carrying over into Dominion Day or Canada’s birthday celebrated on July 1st. He is the patron saint not only of Quebec but of Canada.
Such are some of the spiritual resonances of a very unusual and yet a most significant figure in the Christian understanding. What exactly do we celebrate in the nativity of John the Baptist? The Collect shows us: his “wonderful birth” which points to the greater wonder of Christ’s birth; his “preaching of repentance”; his “doctrine and holy life” concentrated on the themes of “constantly speak[ing] the truth, boldly rebuk[ing] vice, and patiently suffer[ing] for the truth’s sake”. It sums up eloquently and economically the whole of the scriptural story of John the Baptist.
Such themes belong to the life of the Christian Church and Faith. John the Baptist is the forerunner of Christ, vox clamantis in deserto, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” whose unusual birth, itself a kind of miracle, points to the purpose of his very being. He is “the Prophet of the Highest” (Lk.1.76), a prophet and yet “more than a prophet,” as Jesus says (Mt. 11.9), pointing to John who is pointing us to Jesus. His ministry is summed up in the preaching of repentance. What is that except our turning back to God from whom we have turned away?
The feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist awakens us to the deep and true desire of our humanity for something beyond ourselves without which our lives are empty and meaningless. Plotinus, the great 3rd century pagan philosopher, observes that “the deepest impulse of the soul is for that which is greater than herself.” Such ancient wisdom looks back to the teachings of Plato and Aristotle yet resonates profoundly in the philosophical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It speaks to the dilemmas of our day wherein we are engrossed and wrapped up in ourselves, in our own sense of self and personal rights, privileges and sensual enjoyments. Such things betray this deeper wisdom and leave us in despair and sorrow.
In a way, this ancient insight and wisdom helps us to think about the witness of John in his nativity. From the outset of his conception and birth, John the Baptist exists for what is greater than himself. “He it is who cometh after me,” John says, “whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose” (Jn. 1.27). “I am not the Christ,” he says, “but I have been sent before him … He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3.28, 30). His witness from the moment of his birth points to Jesus as the one “who comes from above and who is above all” (Jn 3.31). The Father loves the Son,” John tells us, “and has given all things into his hand” (Jn. 3.35). Thus John witnesses to Christ as Pantokrator. And those who heard him note that “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man [Christ] was true” (Jn. 10.41). In pointing us to Christ, John the Baptist highlights the true nature of our metanoia. It is about thinking after or upon the things of God. Our truth and the meaning of our lives cannot be found in the vain projects of our souls in our worldliness and self-obsessions. John awakens us to God as the truth of our desires. He witnesses to Christ as that truth with us and in us.
He does so in the face of the world’s hostilities and the arrogance of power, standing up to the immorality of Herodias and the Herods, and being imprisoned and ultimately beheaded. Such is his commitment to what is greater than himself. He signals to us the true meaning of our Christian witness. For while the Christian Faith has at times shaped cultures it also remains essentially counter-culture out a refusal to collapse the Gospel into the agendas of the world. The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist recalls the Church to her life and witness in Christ. It is found in our desire for what is greater than ourselves and without which we are as nothing. It is about who we are in the sight of God.
What manner of child shall this be?
Fr. David Curry
The Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist
June 24th, 2020