Advent 4: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome

According to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, today’s Gospel reading is John 1:19-28. Out of mercy, here it is in the ESVUK (rather than BCP):

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Another great passage involving St John the Baptist comes in John 3:30, when it is reported to the Forerunner that Jesus’ disciples are baptising more than he; his response: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The lives and teachings of God’s holy ones (‘saints’) serve as lessons, especially when the holy ones are prophets or apostles. Here, the last prophet of the Messiah (a prophet who, as St Augustine observes, was able not only to predict the Messiah but point at him with his own finger) provides us with an attitude that we, too, should adopt, not just in this Advent Season but all the time.

It is, admittedly, a difficult attitude to keep. ‘He must increase’ — oh, how we wish to increase! We want to get it our way, at work, at study, in social engagements with friends, in dealing with family, even in determining the meals for the week or entertainment at evening. We wish to increase, to choose exactly which courses we teach, to divest ourselves of administrative duties, to read only the books that are interesting, to get a big paycheque, to gain renown in our own field of work.

But he — He — must increase.

And when we consider His ethical teachings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, He (and thus His increase) is found in the good and progress of others. He is found in sharing the burdens of others. He is not found in getting my way. Indeed, getting my way is likely to get in His way.

And, like St John the Forerunner, we should point the way to the One ‘the strap of whose sandal [we are] not worthy to untie’. As I posted here in an Advent not long ago, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Christ is still in the midst of us risen and ascended and reigning, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. John the Baptist points the Pharisees to Him.

Whom are we pointing to Him today?

(A worthy question, and I am myself unsure of my own answer. Nonetheless, a question more worthy than culture wars and fighting the war for ‘Christmas’.)

Advent 2, Sarum: More stirring up!

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome (9th-c)

The Collect for Advent 2 according the Use of Sarum, like that for Advent 1 and the Sunday Next Before Advent (as discussed a week ago), is also a ‘Stir up’ collect:

Stir up, O Lord, our hearts to prepare the way of Thy Only Begotten: that by His coming we may be counted worthy to serve Thee with purified hearts. Who livest …

And, like a week ago, there is emphasis on God counting us worthy. I won’t repeat my mullings on that count here. Instead, two other thoughts.

First, in contemporary Christianity, Advent 2 is the week of St John the Baptist, as I happily proclaimed on Sunday. In the Revised Common Lectionary, we read from Luke 3, with the Baptist proclaiming, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’ In the Roman lectionary, they read from Matthew 11, where Jesus asks the crowd what they went to see when they went to John the Baptist — a reed shaken in the wind?

As it turns out, neither of these passages is the one in the Sarum Missal — instead, we find there Jesus’ apocalyptic proclamations of Luke 21.

Second, I like the emphasis on ‘purified hearts’. Advent was originally a solemn time of preparation, similar to Lent, if not quite as hard-core. Indeed, the Orthodox think of it as Lent (whereas what we call ‘Lent’ they call ‘Great Lent’). This union of purification and preparation is why both seasons traditionally have the same liturgical colour.

As St Paul says in Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet God calls us, broken though we are, to serve Him. Let us strive to do so with purified hearts, let us beseech the Lord to purify us.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

On June 10, 2009, I published a post about our first weekly saint, St. Columba.  Since then, the list has grown considerably.  Most of them get the big ST, but not all.  The principle has been the examination of the lives and teachings of those who have gone before us.  Not all Christians of interest get the big ST.

We have looked at ancient, mediaeval, and post-mediaeval (‘modern’) Christians.  We have looked at Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and one Ethiopian Orthodox.  Apostolic men stand alongside poets who shake hands with mystics and martyrs.  All of these people have lived lives for Christ, and I hope that all of them can help bring us nearer to Christ by their example and teaching.

My selection has sometimes been from the Church Calendar.  Sometimes it has started there, as with Edmund James Peck (see in the list) and then extended by association; following Peck I wrote about other missionaries to the Arctic.  Sometimes they are chosen because I am reading about them or studying their work.

Often, if you have been following these weekly saints, you will have noticed that I give a brief biography of the saint, but not always.  Sometimes I offer a meditation on some aspect of the saint’s life and teaching.  Sometimes I ponder how best we might be able to honour or learn from a particular saint.  I hope these have been a blessing and will continue to bless!  Enjoy!

There are no women.  This is too bad.  I should fix this.  I meant to St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, when her feast rolled on by, but posted about no saint that week.  She and others shall make their way into the saints for 2011.  Here are the Weekly Saints thus far:

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Pope St. Leo the Great (here & here)

St. John of the Cross

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Albert Lacombe

St. John the Baptist

St. Thomas the Apostle

St. Matthias the Apostle

St. Boniface

St. Augustine of Canterbury

St. Anthony of Padua

Emperor Constantine the Great

St. Athanasius

Dante Alighieri

St. George the Dragonslayer

George MacDonald

Thomas Cranmer

St. Cuthbert

St. Gregory of Nyssa

John Wesley (here & here)

St. Polycarp of Smyrna

St. Valentine

St. Antony the Great

St. Jean de Brebeuf

St. Francis of Assisi

Hans Egede

St. Juvenaly of Alaska

Edmund James Peck

St. John of Damascus

Abba Giyorgis Saglawi

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

St. Maximilian Kolbe

CS Lewis

St. Alban the Martyr

Sts. Peter and Paul

St. Basil the Great

St. Columba

Saint of the Week: St. Andrew the Apostle

St. Andrew on a Column in Nicholson Square, Edinburgh

Since St. Andrew’s Day was this week, and St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland (where I live), he’s this week’s saint.

St. Andrew, judging from the Gospel accounts, was originally a fisherman, and then a disciple of St. John the Baptist.  But when the Baptist declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Andrew and some of the others decided to go check out Jesus’ digs.

After having spent a little bit of time with Jesus, Andrew ran off to tell his brother Simon that he’d found the Messiah.  Simon is important because later on, Jesus calls him the Rock (Petros in Greek), and he goes on to be a great leader in the apostolic band.

During the brief years of Jesus’ ministry, although not of the closest three (the Rock, James, John), he was of the inner four, often coming in lists with the other three.

He also spoke up and pointed out the boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  He is mentioned once in Acts.

So much for the biblical record.

As my previous post about St. Matthias tells us, there is a document known as The Acts of Andrew and Matthias in which St. Matthias goes to the land of the cannibals, and St. Andrew rescues him from being gormandized.  The OE poem Andreas (alluded to here) is about Andrew realising Matthias’ trouble through a dream and his journey there.  Jesus is the helmsman of Andrew’s ship and awesomeness ensues.  Andrew shows up and preaches to the cannibals then sets Matthias free.  More awesomeness follows this.

Following this, I believe that these apostolic fellows go and preach to some barbarians.  They show a little caution this time, not wishing to be had for dinner.  But the barbarians prove not to be cannibals.  Thankfully.

As tradition has it, Aegeates, a pagan proconsul whose wife Andrew converted, was angered by his wife’s Christianity.  He accordingly had Andrew crucified in the shape of an X — hence the Saltire on Scotland’s flag.

What do we take from all this?  St. Andrew was a man who found the Messiah and wasn’t afraid to bring others to him.  He brought his brother.  According to the old stories, he brought the good news about the Messiah to the cannibals as well as the people of Greece.  We may not all be the Rock — a great public leader — but can we not all be Andrew?  I reckon we can.

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Saint of the Week: St. John the Baptist

When you think of John the Baptist, what do you imagine?  A wild-eyed prophet?  A bearded man with messy hair clothed in hairy clothes?  John the Baptist is, in some way, the last of the Prophets (although Christ, as God Incarnate, is truly the last prophet (see John White, The Golden Cow on Jesus the Prophet).  He stands in the streets and deserts of Judaea calling all to repentance — soldiers, tax collectors, fishermen, Pharisees, Saduccees, kings, concubines, harlots.

St. John the Baptist is one of the few New Testament saints for whom we actually have a fairly clear portrayal and narrative.  He was the son of Zacharias and Elizabeth, born to Elizabeth either contrary to her barrenness or after she was past the age of childbearing.

Zacharias was a priest, and John’s birth was prophesied to him by the Angel Gabriel while Zacharias was on duty in the Temple, the angel standing next to the altar of incense.  Zacharias scoffed and was struck mute until John was born, at which point his tongue was loosened and everyone learned the name of the child.

The first thing we know of John the Baptist doing, however, was pre-natal.  When Mary while pregnant with Our Lord went to visit Elizabeth — for Mary and Elizabeth were kin — St. John leapt in his mother’s womb, so happy was he to be near his Lord.

He seems to have been sort of a latter-day Nazirite, for he did not touch strong drink.  He spent the early years of his adult life in solitude in the desert — thus is he a model for the Desert Fathers — before beginning his prophetic and preaching ministry.  In the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius’ reign (AD 28-29), John the Baptist began his preaching ministry.  He preached along the Jordan, calling the Jewish people to a baptism — a dunking in the water — of repentance, symbolising the washing of their sins and a recommitment to YHWH, God of the Covenant.  When some Pharisees came to see what the big deal was, he called them a brood of vipers and challenged them, warning them that Another was to follow him Who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

At some point in John’s ministry, that Other came — his kinsman Jesus.  John beheld Jesus and knew Him to be Messiah, and said that it would be more appropriate for Jesus to baptise him, for he was not worthy even to unbuckle Jesus’ sandals.  Jesus told him that it was necessary for Him to be baptised so that all things might be fulfilled.  As Jesus rose out of the Jordan, the Spirit descended upon Him in the shape of a dove, and the Father spoke from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

At some point John also gathered himself some followers.  Among his disciples were Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, and another, who followed Jesus one day after His baptism, when John pointed at Him saying cryptic things such as, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!”

John continued his ministry of preaching and baptising.  At some point, as we see in the Gospel According to John, Jesus disciples were also baptising — and baptising more people.  When someone pointed this out to John the Baptist, the Baptist said that this was only proper, for He (Jesus) must increase and John the Baptist decrease.

Later, John the Baptist, like a prophet of old, turned his prophetic voice towards the king, Herod (not “the Great”) who was Tetrarch of Galilee.  He informed King Herod that his having taken Herodias, wife of Philip, as his own, he was violating the Law (the Herods, although of Edomite descent, had converted to Judaism when Rome gave them the kingdom of Judaea to rule).  Herod, not being a King David, threw John in prison for his insolence.

While John was lurking in Herod’s prison, he heard of the many wonderful things Jesus was doing.  And here, the man before whom went the spirit of Elijah, the man who had proclaimed Jesus the Lamb of God, the man who had seen the Holy Spirit descend, reached his lowest point.  Wavering in his faith, he sent one of his disciples to inquire if Jesus was the one they were waiting for or not.

Jesus’ reply: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt. 11:5)

I imagine this was enough for John the Baptist in his last days on earth.

One night, King Herod was feasting with his buddies.  Herodias’ daughter (traditionally called Salome) performed a dance for them.  It must have been some dance, for Herod promised to Salome anything she wished, up to half his kingdom.  Herod was probably pretty drunk when he made that promise.  Under Herodias’ advisement, Salome asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Herod didn’t really want to do this, and probably regretted his rash promise, but there were all his drinking buddies.  So Salome got what she wished, and the last prophet died to fulfill the whim of an angry woman.

The lesson?  Oh, the lessons of St. John the Baptist are manifold.  Repent and be baptised.  Be generous.  Fulfill your duties as you should.  If you have two buns, share them.  That’s from his preaching.  From his life — be committed to the cause of Christ.  Yes, things will go bad.  Your faith may even falter, and you may even get killed.  But isn’t it better to die for something True and worth believing than to live for nothing at all?

“worthily lamenting our sins”

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday.  As we prayed the various penitent prayers and Psalms at church, I couldn’t help but think of the strongly penitential tone of the BCP and its emphasis on actual sorrow for sins.  Indeed, in 1662, we “moan and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,” although by 1962 this is mellowed to “acknowledge and confess”.  One of the beautiful prayers in Compline prays that “we may so abound in sorrow for our sins . . .”

Sorrow?  Lament?

We live in a world where, even amongst Christians, the very idea of sin is very unpopular, where the wickedness of the average human heart is ignored and denied — as in the modern liturgy used by my evangelical Anglican church last night where we confessed our “brokenness,” not our “wickedness.”  Yet, as Christine Watt preached boldly from the pulpit at last night’s service, Sin is real.  It is the root of so much pain and sorrow and suffering in our world.  It is the inner condition of humanity, the reason for our many daily small rebellions, let alone the big, flashy wrongdoings.

Yet even if we admit the reality of Sin and its insidious presence in our lives, damaging our relationships, distorting the beautiful image of God within us, do we lament?  We fight sin, surely.  We are good at the linguistic approach to repent, knowing that what it means is to turn 180 degrees and walk a new direction, as Josephus encouraging a Jewish soldier to repent and fight for Rome, or John the Baptist telling that brood of vipers to repent and live holy lives.

However, whenever we think of sorrow, we think of things quite repugnant to the modern mind.

We imagine ashes on our heads, rending our garments, rubbing excrement on our faces, shedding tears, flagellating ourselves, grovelling at the feet of a fierce, wrathful God who will destroy us with fire if we do not repent and live according to his rules.

We remember St. Ambrose saying that if we do not shed tears, we are not truly repentant.

We remember St. Thomas a Kempis’ endless sorrow for his sinful state that hung as a shadow over much of Soliloquy of the Soul.

Sorrow need not be so extreme.  Indeed, I do not believe that the Christian should spend his or her entire life weeping over sin and grovelling in the dust, for we are called to rejoice in the Lord always.  Christ says that if we love one another, our joy shall be full.

Nevertheless, sorrow for sin can be real.  I think it should be real.  If we know God, if we are in a real relationship with him, should we not grieve to harm him?  If we have compassion for the people around us, should we not grieve to harm them?  Indeed, we should.  Just as we rejoice to bring joy to our beloved, so it strikes me as natural to sorrow when we bring sorrow to our beloved.

Maybe this lament will be nothing more than an inner pang of regret when we do something wrong.  Maybe it will be larger, depending on the sin or its frequency.

And once this lament is done, once we have sorrowed for our sins, we should enter the joy of repentance.  We can live the new life.  We are reconciled to our Friend.  There is no longer any need for sorrow, for we are forgiven through our mediator and advocate, Jesus Christ.  Sorrow for sin, if real, should ever turn to joy in forgiveness, hope for resurrection.