June 26, 2020
A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
...Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” -- Isaiah 40:3-5, 9 New Revised Standard Version
As in most months, June has several commemorations for both our society and the Church. Flag Day, Father’s Day and Juneteenth celebrate symbols, people and liberty in our families and nation. The Episcopal Church calendar for June is much longer.
There are several feast days, honoring an abbot, bishops, missionaries, educators, mystics, an early Syrian deacon, Ephrem, the first Native American Ojibwa Episcopal priest, Emmegahbowh, and James Weldon Johnson, a poet and lyricist of the Christian hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing"-- the African-American national anthem. Two major feasts in June mark the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary with St. Elizabeth, and the Nativity of John the Baptist.
In June, the category that many on the church calendar fall into is that of martyr: Justin (c. Year 167); the Martyrs of Lyon (in 177), followed on the next day by the Martyrs of Uganda (in 1886); St. Boniface (in 754); St. Barnabas (in the first century, C.E.); Bernard Mizeki (in 1896); St. Alban (in 304); and the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, who both were executed in Rome around the year 64 C.E.
But certainly, John the Baptist, the forerunner to and cousin of Jesus, was a martyr also. He was beheaded for a faith that led him to declare truth and morality as signs of repentance, even to the highest seat of power in the government. Christians consider John the Baptist the last prophet in a centuries-long line of prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, demanding we place God first in our lives. To put God first, we must live as God demands of us: acting ethically, adhering to speaking the truth, compassionate generosity and striving for mercy and justice for others.
Prophets had a difficult life and usually suffered rejection. They were inconvenient and often unwelcomed and dismissed. Their words still ring in the air and are directed to us today. They challenge our priorities, perception and values that are based on worldly desires. Prophets preach "harsh words in a smooth season." Of prophets the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote:
The prophet is human yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is neither 'a singing saint' nor 'a moralizing poet,' but an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends. --The Prophets, p. 10
Like the prophets before him, John the Baptist had an isolated and difficult life. It wasn’t just that he wore itchy camel’s hair, ate locusts and wandered in the hot, dry dessert. He did not mince words with anyone. He delivered words of condemnation to those who were affluent, powerful and had re-created their identity through status and finances. He called them idolaters, even if they were respectable and kept the religious observances outwardly, but were conformed to the world inwardly. Like all the prophets, he wasn’t just a spiritual leader; prophets were theological commentators on civic life and political structures. Politics and religion were distinguishable but not separable. He was consumed by, in, for and with God.
John the Baptist was a dangerous man.
Though crowds did flock to see him, some who came were just curious, some were there to laugh, some to spy and report back to the authorities, and only some were seeking spiritual renewal. John proclaimed that someone was coming after him, whose greatness and holiness made John unworthy to even carry his sandals. In a society where order of birth meant something, demanding respect for those older, John had to make way and become diminished by the rise of his younger cousin, Jesus.
I write this reflection on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In a few hours I will be in a Zoom gathering with some of our deacons. At the end our time together, we will hear the lessons appointed to this feast day and I will read again a meditation by my friend and colleague the Rev. Sam Portaro on John the Baptist. His meditation, written over two decades ago, speaks to us, our church and society today:
It could not have been easy for John, the elder cousin who was miraculously conceived and born first. John rose to public notice well before Jesus, a phenomenon in his own right…
It could not have been easy for John to take the lower place. His charism and his daring opened the way for Jesus; by sheer force of personality, the path had been cleared. The bold cousin, unafraid to speak out against injustice, was the first to risk and the first to die…
In this me-first, give-me-my-rights world, John proves that blessedness and virtue do not always mean the highest place, that vocation does not always lead to the top of the heap. God also calls to supporting roles. What we initially experience as a setback or loss may be a new call, a vocational urging to understand our role as John understood his.
Giving up his life, [Jesus] fulfilled his own vocation by following the example of the cousin he joined in death. With steadfast faith and awful symmetry, Jesus, like his cousin John before him, confirmed the pattern of discipleship: he decreased that we might increase.
--Brightest and Best: A Companion to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, pp. 110-111
There is much to frighten us, and much for which we can be thankful. At times we may feel helpless, alone and without direction. It is then that God calls us, away from complacency, fear, anxiety, in order to lead us to look beyond ourselves and circumstances toward seeking and serving Christ in others, and walking with them in what they face, or need. And in so doing, following the pattern of discipleship that may diminish us by worldly standards so others may be empowered, we discover the presence of Christ in us.
John the Baptist always pointed away from himself toward God, and found God in others, and in himself, as he baptized. He is an example for us in challenging times. Entitlement and privilege mean nothing in God’s eyes; we must speak against injustice and inequality, and pull the knees off the necks of others. John the Baptist shouts, he cries, he whispers to us today to clear the way; "God and the Kingdom of God is at hand." He speaks to us today to clear from our path fear, bigotry, greed, apathy, hopelessness and self-preoccupation. John reminds us to clear the path so others who are different, needy, oppressed and marginalized might be free, have justice and rise. He shouts, he whispers to our hearts, "Prepare the way of the Lord." An American prophet of freedom and equality said it this way:
There is a prophet within us, forever whispering that behind the seen lies the immeasurable unseen. --Frederick Douglass,1862
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for The Nativity of John the Baptist, The Book of Common Prayer
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris