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Still preparing the Way

Today the Orthodox Church celebrates the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner. He is called “Forerunner” because he appeared before Jesus Christ, to prepare the way of the Lord, in the spirit of what Isaiah had spoken: A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LordMake straight in the desert a highway for our God.” He was a voice crying out in the wilderness of human society, preparing a people’s hearts to receive the coming of the Lord. Two thousand years later, I venture to say that hearts are still not prepared for the coming of the Lord; the way still needs preparing. The world is still a desert, a “highway” for God is nowhere to be found.

There are churches, cathedrals and monasteries all over the world that claim to have his belt or some other garment of his, some piece of his body or even his head! But nowhere is his spirit to be found.

John was a rebel even before his birth. The story of his conception and birth is told in the first chapter of Luke. He was conceived by divine intervention in a manner similar to the birth of Samuel a thousand years earlier. After the birth of Samuel, his mother Hannah prayed a most remarkable prayer, a prayer far from what we might think would be normal after the birth of a child. But these were revolutionary times.

“My heart exults in the Lord;
    my strength is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in thy salvation.

“There is none holy like the Lord,
    there is none besides thee;
    there is no rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
    let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
….
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
    and on them he has set the world.

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea…” The times of John’s birth were also times of unrest and evil; they were revolutionary times, when God’s new acts were imminent, in the air, in the daily talk of the people. And angel appeared to the priest Zechariah and told him that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, who would “be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And… he will go… in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 

Six months after the angel appeared to Zechariah, another angel went to a young woman in Israel and told her she would be the mother of an even more remarkable baby. Mary was the woman, and a relative of Elizabeth. When she heard the announcement of her miraculous, divine birth-giving, she spoke these words. Note the remarkable similarity to Hannah’s prayer:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Both Hannah and Mary spoke of justice – justice for the poor and hungry, justice that would overturn the high position of the rich and powerful. God’s values were always the opposite of man’s values, regardless of whether you are speaking of ancient Israel or the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time… or today.

St_John_BaptistJohn’s appearance was offensive to civil society. He told people to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand – not the kingdom of man, not the kingdom of Rome, not the kingdom of the IMF or any other worldly power then or now. The Church calls him a saint – but by doing so, have we managed to lose the bite of his existence? Have we domesticated this wild man who lost his head to a king? Did the kingdom of God prove powerless after all, to save him? And did the kingdom of God fail to save John’s cousin, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose way John prepared?

Ah, but the story is not over. The kingdom of God is still coming, the way is still being prepared – if not by John, then by those who choose to go against every institutional restriction, who refuse to be brainwashed by the mighty who still sit on their thrones. Christianity has always lived among those who prefer the wild ways of John, not among the comfortable. If your Christian faith makes you comfortable, you really need to go back and open the Gospels, especially Mark, Luke and Matthew.

John walked in the spirit of Elijah. We are called to walk in the spirit of John, to prepare a way for the Lord, to make a highway for him in the desert of the world’s spiritual emptiness. We are also called to speak with Mary, to dream with her. We sing the words that Mary spoke at every Matins service in the Orthodox Church. We sing them. Perhaps we need to speak them instead – speak them to each other and to the powerful who think they own the world and all that is in it.


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Day for a Beheading

August 29th is observed every year as a commemoration of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. The story is told most fully in Mark 6:14-30.

beheading of john

Icon of the beheading of John the Baptist, showing Salome waiting to receive the head of John

The story is gruesome, and the composer Richard Strauss took advantage of the gruesome aspects in creating his shocking opera, Salome. The daughter of Herodias is not named in the Gospel narratives, but Salome is the name that tradition has given her. She was coached by her mother to request the head of John the Baptist, which she did. But that’s the stuff that operas and melodramas are based on. The true meaning of this day lies elsewhere.

Why was John put in jail to begin with? Because he accused King Herod for committing incest by marrying his sister-in-law, Herodias. But that too is the stuff of melodrama and there is confusion in the historical records about Philip, Salome and Herodias. No, it’s not melodrama and royal intrigues that interests us today. Rather, it is the ministry of John himself.

John was imprisoned because he spoke truth to power. His conflict with Herod and Herodias echoes the conflict of the prophet Elijah with Ahab and Jezebel in the time of ancient Israel. In the Orthodox Church, John is called Prophet and Forerunner. He was prophet because, like the prophets of ancient Israel, he proclaimed God’s judgment on sin. And he was prophet also in the sense that he spoke of the coming of Christ, the Messiah. But he did more than speak of Christ’s coming. He also prepared the way for the coming; hence he is also called Forerunner (Prodromos in Greek). His appearance in the desert, baptizing people and preparing them to receive the coming of Christ, was a fulfillment of the prophesy spoken by Isaiah 40:2-4, The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for our God,” to quote the King James version that was set to music my Handel in his great oratorio, Messiah. (See and hear the tenor soloist singing these words at about the 10-minute mark of this video of the complete oratorio; or at about the 8-minute mark of this alternative video recording.)

John appeared in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. The desert is the place where God encountered Israel throughout the ages. It was in the desert that God appeared to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). It was in the desert that God led the people of Israel to the promised land. It was in the desert that God revealed himself to Elijah (1 Kings 19). And so on.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the desert was the place of testing – where the people were tested by God and God himself was tested by the people. The desert symbolizes the arid heart, the human heart that has drifted away from God. So it is in the desert that God goes looking for us. It was in the desert that John preached and baptized, preparing the way of the Lord. And it was in the desert that Jesus himself was tested (Luke 4) after his baptism by John.

Icons of John the Baptist often show him preaching in the desert with his severed head on display.

john the baptist

 The message of the icon is clear. From the moment John went out in the desert, it was a foregone conclusion that John would die a brutal death. Herod and Herodias were not the only enemies he created. He challenged all levels of society (Luke 3:1-20), especially the powerful. He was the last of the Hebrew prophets. He prepared the way for one mightier than he: “I baptize you with water; but one who is mightier than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). The powers destroyed John, as they would later destroy the One whose way he prepared. The Forerunner’s spiritual unity with Christ was complete.

The Church honors the beheading of John the Forerunner every year on August 29th. May today be a call to every one of us to go out into the desert places of our lives to hear the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Every one of us can prepare the way of the Lord. The desert is in us and all around us. It is the place where God waits to meet us, to heal us, to baptize us with Spirit and fire.