Sunday, December 15, 2013

John the Baptist and The Sign

Sometimes, a picture is just worth a thousand words:

The Mass readings of today held many layers of personal meaning for me. But they are all summed up in the figure of St. John the Baptist.

This passage from St. Augustine in the Office of Readings also blew me away today:

From a sermon by Saint Augustine
John is the voice, and Christ is the Word
John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever.
  Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart.
  However, let us observe what happens when we first seek to build up our hearts. When I think about what I am going to say, the word or message is already in my heart. When I want to speak to you, I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine.
  In my search for a way to let this message reach you, so that the word already in my heart may find place also in yours, I use my voice to speak to you. The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine.
  When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts.
  Do you need proof that the voice passes away but the divine Word remains? Where is John’s baptism today? It served its purpose, and it went away. Now it is Christ’s baptism that we celebrate. It is in Christ that we all believe; we hope for salvation in him. This is the message the voice cried out.
  Because it is hard to distinguish word from voice, even John himself was thought to be the Christ. The voice was thought to be the word. But the voice acknowledged what it was, anxious not to give offence to the word. I am not the Christ, he said, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. And the question came: Who are you, then? He replied: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord. The voice of one crying in the wilderness is the voice of one breaking the silence. Prepare the way for the Lord, he says, as though he were saying: “I speak out in order to lead him into your hearts, but he does not choose to come where I lead him unless you prepare the way for him.”
  What does prepare the way mean, if not “pray well”? What does prepare the way mean, if not “be humble in your thoughts”? We should take our lesson from John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory.
  If he had said, “I am the Christ,” you can imagine how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke. But he did not say it; he acknowledged what he was. He pointed out clearly who he was; he humbled himself.
  He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride.

Here's my take-home pondering. A few years back, God placed someone in my life and a little bit later gave me to understand that this person had a John-the-Baptist-like role in my life. I really didn't understand at the time what that meant. But today I see with greater clarity. John the Baptist signaled the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new. His role was limited; he pointed to Christ, and then he was beheaded. And yet he was the greatest of prophets because he literally pointed not centuries ahead (see yesterday's post) but feet ahead to the present Messiah.

Now, it seems a little tricky for a person to be put in my life as a prophetic sign, but I think that's what I'm saying has happened. This person has been more than a prophetic sign, though. There have been other aspects ranging from the good to the bad to the very, very difficult in our relationship with each other. Today, though, it seems that the important thing for me to pay attention to is the meaning of the prophetic sign. Because of this person, God dug through some very old things in my life, pre-Catholic, even pre-conversion to Christ, and did away with them. Boom, gone. Well, that "boom" took a few years, but still. And also through this person, God has ushered me in to a new era of my life. As I look back now, it is clear-as-day undeniable. God has used this person to call me to a new and deeper life in Christ and the Church, which has a concrete name: the Secular Carmelites. My personal relationship with the Lord has been utterly transformed. And there's even been something like a beheading. Fortunately it has not been literal, but the whole ordeal was painful enough that it feels like it should have been. Just to drive the point home that it was a non-coincidental move of God, a certain division landed smack on the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist a couple years ago.

I can get really caught up looking at signs. It reminds me of the gospel scene of Jesus having ascended to heaven, and the disciples stand there staring up into the sky, probably with their mouths open, gaping and dumbfounded. The angel has to come and say "Yo, dudes. What are you doing? Close your mouths, and then go do what He just got done telling you. Shoo, go, make disciples!"

I have stood gaping at the sign God gave me. Signs are precious gifts. But signs exist so that we put our faith in the power of the One who has revealed Himself to us, not so that we can build booths and stay on the mountain top forever with the sign.

God is calling me onward. Onward, for me, usually means something interior. I have sensed this for at least one solid year, but "senses" never come just once; they build in layers of prayer and experience. But I know that this "onward" means this understanding: Love means giving myself for the other. Which other? Any and every other God puts in my path. It means loving and giving for the sake of the other, not for what I get out of the loving or the giving. My life is a blank check. Absolutely all of it is put at God's disposal for His purposes, which means it is at the disposal of the people in my life: "my neighbor." I am reminded how Bl. Teresa of Calcutta said that God does not command us to love the world because "the world" is an abstraction. He calls us to love our neighbor. That means the concrete person sharing our life.

But that person, those people, do not become my security. I do not lay claim to any person. Love with detachment, as the Father does and Jesus reveals to us. This does not mean God is aloof; it means that He does not love with self-seeking. He loves with complete self-giving, to the point of death.

My security, my attachment is to Christ on the cross: the sign of God's eternal love which becomes mine. May I love Him and come to imitate Him.

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