Advent 3    Year A    15 December, 2013

John the Baptist

He had always been clear in his own mind about one thing – that in himself as an individual he had no particular identity, no special claim to make for himself. He insisted most emphatically that he was not the Christ, nor was he Elijah (whose reappearance on the stage of history, so it was popularly believed, would signal the imminent approach of the Messiah). Neither was he ‘the prophet’ whom Moses had foretold God would raise up like unto himself to be a deliverer and leader of his people.

No, he was none of these. The only definition of himself which John the Baptist was prepared to give – the only thing which he would say of himself – was that he was a ‘voice’ – ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord’. That is all. He is neither a prophet, nor an ambassador carrying credentials but only a ‘voice’ – a lonely, single voice calling out over the dark and empty places of the world’s wilderness, announcing the coming of the dawn and the new day. In himself and for himself he claims neither specific identity nor distinctive character, nothing in the way of position or status. He is only a nameless voice.

He does not promote himself or seek to draw attention to himself but points to Another – to One who is already present but who as yet remains undisclosed and unrecognised. He is a voice – and a Finger  - as we see depicted in so many mediaeval representations of him in painting and sculpture, pointing to Jesus, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.

John comes bearing a message but he is so identified with it, so at one with the Word which he proclaims, that he himself disappears into it. The Word is everything; he himself is only a voice. ‘He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light’. He who announces the dawn is content to remain in the shadows.

That is how it was all the way. Having done what he was sent to do, John is content to fade into the background and give way to Another, to be of no further significance in the unfolding drama, to be no possible cause of distraction from the central Figure: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.

That is how it was – right to the end. As he had lived, so he died – in obscurity, in the shadows. His death was utterly futile and meaningless, engineered by human spite manipulating human stupidity and triviality – a victim of the sordid intrigues of Herod’s seedy, sleazy court.

Yet even that is not the point. John died without having been able to see for himself the effects of Christ’s coming. It was not for him to have the satisfaction of knowing that the dawn whose approach he had announced so faithfully had, in fact, arrived. He who had been content to be only ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’ of the world’s lonely night was to remain in the shadows to the last. For John the Baptist there was to be no Nunc Dimittis, no glad satisfaction of knowing that all that he had witnessed to and waited for had come true. From death-row he sends to Jesus a simple straightforward message – a question: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ With that question, spoken out of doubt and uncertainty and disappointment perhaps, the Voice falls silent. Nothing more is heard, for there is nothing more to be said. ‘A voice in the wilderness’ – indeed he was – to the very end.

‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

Like all human beings in every age, we in ours instinctively long for a salvation of some kind – for the freedom, the spaciousness, the healing and the wholeness which the word ‘salvation’ denotes. We long to believe that there might be someone – someone, not something – who will acknowledge us, who will be for us – not over us, not against us but with us and for us. We long for there to be someone who will believe in us and so help us to believe in ourselves – for there to be someone who will look upon us and say ‘Yes’ to us – that ‘Yes’ without which we cannot live. We long for an Annunciation, for there to be one who will come to us and say ‘ The Lord is with you’ – for that is the Gospel we long to hear, the Good News, which is for us the Word of Life.

Can we believe that what we shall be celebrating as the days shorten and darken to mid-winter is the answer to that longing? Is this the assurance that reality is on our side – that this is the ‘Yes’ by which alone we can live? Can this be God’s way of responding to the tyrannies and injustices and cruelties of the centuries –  the holocausts, the ethnic cleansings, the gulags and the interrogation cells endured by millions of people throughout history. Can this be God’s way of dealing with the blindness and darkness of our own hearts? – ‘or are we to wait for another?’

How can Bethlehem begin to be the answer to a world that is wide of its good, a world of which we are part, a world which is turned away from God and turned in on itself in bitterness and disbelief and despair?

We don’t know how it can be the answer, we can only hope that it might be so – and hoping that it might be so is faith – and faith is all that we’ve got – there is nothing else. So in our blind and groping way we sense that if there is any hope at all for our human condition, shadowed as it is by shapes of grief and terror, the secret of it is somehow with this Birth. For what we are given in this very dead of winter is not an ideology, not a political manifesto, not a philosophical system or a set of moral principles, not a theological structure or an ecclesiastical programme – not something, but Someone – a Child!

Although perhaps we can’t put it into words, or explain it either to ourselves or to anyone else, we somehow glimpse that there is something about this Child and about the manner of his coming to be with us – born on the margins of our social structures and systems and their manifold contrivances, born on the outside of respectability and propriety, for whom ‘ there was no room’ and who came as ‘a stranger’ and we ‘received him not’, though he was one of us, ‘bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh’ – something about him which places him at the very centre of our condition, at the very heart of our lostness and brokenness. We believe that in him we are shown what it is to be truly human and the expense and the endeavour that it requires. For this is God’s way of being human. This is how we are saved.

We cannot explain it. We cannot understand it. We can only hope that it might be so. When in the 6th century the Emperor Justinian replaced the church which a couple of centuries earlier Constantine had built on the site of the Lord’s Nativity in Bethlehem, he had it constructed in such a way that the only entrance was through a low narrow doorway. No doubt the intention was to make it difficult for marauders and looters to gain access and carry off the treasures and precious things which the church contained. Whatever the  intention, that door ever since has been called the Door of Humility.

It signifies that anyone can come to that place where Mary’s Son is born and that no one is excluded or turned away. What is required is that we should be willing to dump all the unnecessary baggage and paraphernalia with which we clutter and encumber ourselves and leave it all outside and stoop our heads and bow our hearts and bend low. Only then, only at Ground Zero, might we begin to glimpse the mystery.

The simplicity of God and the humility of God require of us nothing more and nothing less than that. It is enough. It is everything.

Eric Simmons CR