The title for this week comes from a modern hymn, written by Brian Wren in celebration of John the Baptist. The words of the hymn can be found at Welcome the Wild One – Hope Publishing Company. The 12th century icon from Cyprus immediately below offers an image of John the Baptist in his ‘wildness’. This image certainly contrasts with the painting of the Baptist further down the blog. Alongside the figure of John, who features in this week’s lectionary Gospel, we refer to two modern Christian figures, both of whom perhaps offered ‘elements’ of John, the wild one, in their contribution to the life of the church. The blog draws on both this week’s lectionary Gospel (John 1.6-8; 19-28) and Epistle (1 Thessalonians 5.16-24) as well as alluding back to the Gospel used last Sunday.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, firstname.lastname@example.org
,On December 10 1968 two globally known Christian figures died, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton on the very same day. Their deaths occurred in very different circumstances. Barth died ‘full of years’ at his home in Basle, Switzerland; Merton’s death by electrocution happened as the result of a mysterious accident in Thailand as he was attending a monastic conference thousands of miles away from his Abbey of Gethsemani. Two years ago in 2018 the 50th anniversary of their deaths was marked by many. I found it intriguing that about half of my professional Christian colleagues were commemorating Karl Barth, while the other half focused on remembering Thomas Merton. It made me wonder whose legacy – Barth’s or Merton’s – would prove to be the most enduring, in say, another fifty years’ time?
Both of these two men gained admirers from outside their natural Christian constituency. As regards Barth who was a leading Protestant from the Reformed tradition, Pope Pius XII is reputed to have called him the greatest theologian since Aquinas. The Roman Catholic Merton was valued, both during and after his life, by liberal Protestants and others, from many faith traditions, including non-Christian, who learned from his insights about contemplative prayer. I myself have been an avid reader of Merton’s writings. Wryly perhaps, both Barth’s and Merton’s lives also shared another feature, what might be called ‘complicated’ personal relationships with others, known about to some during their lives, but publicised more widely in the years since. I think in both cases their relationships raise for me the question of how spirituality and sexuality interface with each other. This is an area that has intrigued me since I myself lived for a year in a monastery in my early twenties. It is also an area that I think the Church is really still afraid to explore.
There is another subject that Barth and Merton have in common, however. Perhaps, appropriately, since their deaths actually occurred in the Advent season, they both have some interesting insights about the importance of Advent in the life of the church and in the lives of individual Christians. Both, it seems, deeply cherished the weeks of Advent.
I quoted this remark of Barth from the Church Dogmatics in this blog a couple of weeks ago, but it is worth repeating it: ‘Whatever season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?’
In his 1965 book Seasons of Celebration Merton wrote: ‘The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.’
Both comments, and especially that of Merton, resonate for me with this week’s lectionary Gospel, John 1.6-8; 19-28.
It is interesting how, in the Common Worship/Revised Common Lectionary John the Baptist appears as a central figure in the Gospel reading for two consecutive weeks, Advent 2 and Advent 3. That happens in each of the lectionary years, but in Years A and C, both readings are taken from Matthew and Luke respectively. But when Year B comes round (as it is currently) the first reading (last Sunday) comes from Mark 1.1-8, and the second reading (the lectionary Gospel for the coming Sunday) is taken from the Gospel of John. The centrality of John the Baptist at the heart of Advent feels significant – somehow he could be described as Advent’s patron saint, somehow bridging the two ‘comings’ of Christ that we recall in Advent.
But the picture that we gain of John in the different Gospel readings selected for the two Sundays is different, certainly this year. In Mark’s Gospel he is introduced as ‘John the baptizer’; but in the Gospel of John his role as ‘baptizer’ is largely subsumed into a primary role of ‘witness’ (verse 6, 7). Indeed a careful reading of John 1.29ff suggests that he did not actually ‘baptise’ Jesus himself. Another intriguing difference is that in Mark 1 the description of John’s clothing is deliberately reminiscent of Elijah (see 2 Kings 1.8), and it is clear from Mark 9.13 ‘But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased…’ that the Gospel of Mark does identify John the Baptist with Elijah. By contrast however in John 1.21, when questioned by the ‘priests and Levites’ as to whether he is ‘Elijah’ his response is an explicit ‘I am not’. That comment is part of a sequence of three questions addressed to him are you the Messiah/Elijah/the prophet – with his negative reply getting more and more terse each time. What is interesting and undoubtedly significant is that John’s negative replies offer a deliberate contrast to the language that Jesus will repeatedly and iconically use of himself later in this Gospel, beginning with 4.26 ‘I am…’
For the author of John’s Gospel understood there to be a fundamental difference between Jesus (‘I am’) and John (‘I am not’) which can be expressed through the metaphor of ‘light’. John is ‘not the light’ (1.8), but rather a ‘burning and shining lamp’ (5.35). I understand the difference here between ‘lamp’ and ‘light’ to be that a ‘lamp’ is a secondary source of light, which needs to be lit or kindled by another, and is not spontaneous and self-originating. (Incidentally I think that the prayer offered by Common Worship for lighting the Advent Wreath on Advent 3 which speaks of ‘Your prophet John the Baptist was witness to the truth as a burning and shining light. May we your servants rejoice in his light…’ is misleading and wrong! Advent | The Church of England)
The role of John the Baptist is essentially therefore to point beyond himself to the one who is truth and who is the source of all truth, or as our Nicene Creed expresses it, ‘light of light’, lumen de lumine. This is intriguingly captured by Da Vinci’s portrait of John. The corollary is the acknowledgement that John is a figure who speaks to us of what is ‘not yet’ and ‘more than’ and in that respect it seems to me expresses the Advent spirit of longing and hoping: ‘Our lives, then, are an Advent. The liturgical season of Advent is a sacrament of Everyman’s longing, and this is true for believers no less than for everyone else. A believer who is consciously aware of the season, who stands within the sacramental Advent and thus within the light that is meant for all nations, is deeply conscious of the darkness in himself [sic].’ (Maria Boulding, ‘The Coming of God’)
I sense that both Barth and Merton understood the truth of this.
It has been noted that gradually as Advent progresses the biblical readings shift from focusing on judgement and longing, to a joy which is beginning to be fulfilled. That is certainly true with our Epistle this week, which comes from the very end of 1 Thessalonians in which Paul shifts from speaking about judgement to encouraging his readers to ‘Rejoice always’ (1 Thessalonians 5.16). The passage moves on to a verse which, for personal reasons, is very dear to my heart. ’The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’ (I Thessalonians 5.24). The Greek of the first half of this verse is inscribed on the chapel bell at Westcott House theological college where I was privileged to be
lecturer and tutor for seven years. An appropriate inscription of course, for a bell which called ordinands and staff to worship on a daily basis. But I wonder if the NRSV translation of those Greek words on the bell πιστὸς ὁ καλῶν : pistos o kalon , ‘the one who calls you is faithful…’ expresses all that they can encapsulate? For the verb in this phrase is actually a present participle, and as such could, and perhaps should, be translated as ‘faithful is the calling one’. Such a translation emphasises, to the ordinands of Westcott, and to Christians, both lay and clergy alike, that God’s call is not a one-off, once and for all. God is ‘the calling one’ who continually invites us, in the time of Advent and always, to discover new and deeper insights as we in turn make our response.