Tuesday, 24 June 2008

John the Baptist and Nudity.

Today is the feast day of John the Baptist, relative of Christ and first Saint. Do not, however, write birthday cards for him as it is very unlikely that today really is his birthday, or that in the life that is to come there is anything as domestic and redolent of chocolate cake and balloons as birthdays. Instead, we celebrate with a couple of pictures of the inside of St John the Baptist, Timberhill in Norwich, which has a link at the side of the page. They, of course, are in the unusual position of having two patronal days each year, as there is this feast day which we celebrate today and the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist, which again marks him out as being a cut above your average saint.
John had a deep sense of being called from his birth to prepare the way for the Christ and, unlike so many more before him, actually saw Him and had the honour of baptising Him. John lived in the desert, probably naked or scantily clothed, eating wild berries and living an aesthetic life which drew followers to him as well as regard and mistrust in equal measure from the Roman occupiers. John vocalised the Romans fears, that there was a warrior king coming, the one expected from the house of David and foreseen for so long and that he would liberate his people from bondage and set them free. This was all bad news for the Roman occupying army, of course, but John was tolerated for his apparent humility and sanctity, and as well as that the Romans could hear him and gauge the mood of the people from his proclamations.
As we hear, though, he had many followers who lived in the desert with him, including Christ himself for a short time, it seemed and it is a mark of John's humility that such a towering figure is never heard from again after he baptises Christ, that he simply slunk away, his job completed, the way prepared. He was a rabble rouser, though and ranted and baptised thousands of people by the Jordan, naked and filled with the spirit of God, an indecent theologian, we may say, peddling a theology which directly attacks the ruling class and turns the social mores on their heads. Christ picked up this mantle, I believe, and expects us to do the same today. Lets look at a couple of examples.
First of all Mark 12, verse 38 to 13 verse 2, which is often called the 'widows mite', where the little old lady gives what she has and Vicars throughout the world sigh sweetly and explain that everyone can give something, for we are all building up the Kingdom. Lovely. Except that is wrong, utterly wrong. Here we see Christ walking around the country with His disciples, decrying injustice and they see people from all classes going into the temple, the rich first, who are an easy target, giving ostentatiously and being clamoured after. Then the old woman goes in and has to throw in her penny, all she has. Ask someone with no money, in a genuinely poor society what this means to them! That they have to pay, to give all they have, to be admitted into the temple to worship God, that only money will buy them acceptance in the worshipping community even when they have none, to keep the wealthy wealthy and keep the building richly furnished. Christ, furious, shouts 'not one of these stones shall stand!', in reference to his anger and his recreation of the temple of God as Himself, a redeemed man ransomed for the whole world. Tear down this place which is the home of the rich and which subjugates the poor, he seems to say, for it is not to these that I give up my life!
Secondly, see Mark 5, 1-2, the familiar story of the demon called legion and the pigs. How many pigs did the demon get cast into? Ten? Four? No, two thousand! Two thousand! Have you ever seen two thousand pigs in a herd? No, and nor had they. So what does it mean? Well, we in our time are not the first people to refer to the Police (unfairly, I would like to state) as pigs, the word 'pig' was a common affront to the occupying soldiers who kept the 'peace' at the time of Christ and there were exactly two thousand of them there at that time. This is further reinforced by the use of 'legion', which is a Latinism, very rare in the Gospels, so directly inferring something. It only, thanks to it's Latinism, refers to a legion of soldiers and seems to be saying, powerfully, that the Christians, the emergent Nazarenes, should be overthrowing the occupying forces.
Strong stuff certainly, but we know, we cannot deny, that the Gospels are a narrative of repentance and redemption, calling us to action and a new life, so it is not much of a stretch to expect us to overthrow unjust regimes and implement Christian justice and love in their place. The Gospels do not call us to a fashion parade or to the pub, or to vanity or comfortable places, but to the interface between this world and the next, which Christ walked on the lakeside with His disciples, teaching them and us about the kingdom of God and the social reign of Our Lord. When we say 'thy kingdom come' we are making a political statement of intent and stating that by saying the Our Father, we will work towards it, in the way which He called us to, like John, in indecentness, nakedness and humility. For our faith is not 'decent' in the comfortable way of the world, it is not concerned with social mores and convention or worldly structure, but with the salvation of souls and the peace of the Kingdom.
This midsummer night, let us take strength from John the Baptist, who lived and died for one who he was unworthy to baptise, in simplicity and love, aflame with the fire that burns and marks. Pray lest the fire next time tears down our walls of comfort and turns us into the blessed ones in South America or India or Zimbabwe and make us reliant upon the kindness of strangers like ourselves.