We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of of Mark’s Gospel…
The compelling magnetism of John the Baptist, as he draws crowds from all Judea and Jerusalem, is fascinating for us also. He seems to be a man totally out of sync with his surroundings – both his fashion sense and his diet mark him down as someone who deliberately does not want to belong to the society into which he has been born. And yet the message which he delivers – demanding and even humiliating in inviting his hearers to admit their sinfulness and ask for forgiveness and a symbolic washing to mark their turning around in life – doesn’t fall on deaf or cynical ears.
Undoubtedly, John’s costume asks a question of us about our conformity to society around us. He is content not to be drawn into the usual ways by which acceptance is gained, one of which is always our conformity to how others appear. This is a great pressure exerted today on all of us – and it resonates because each of us feels a deep desire to be with others, like others and at one with others. A sense of belonging is strong when we share things in common with those around us. The risk of isolation seems greatest when we step away from the crowd and the often fickle criteria which are used to define belonging.
It’s interesting to note that John deliberately sets himself apart from the crowd, by his way of life, what he says, the strength of his commitment to his message. He will challenge those whose name literally means ‘the separate ones’ but yet are held high in their society because they are seen as super-observant of God’s law – the Pharisees! But John’s being separate is a facet of his life which is defined by what he has been given to say and do. In this sense we rightly speak of his being a prophet.
In praying with these verses, and with the character of John the Baptist, it’s good for a moment to consider those men in the Old Testament who bore the name ‘prophet’. Each had a moment when they felt intensely God’s presence calling them into service – Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10); Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1); Amos (Amos 7:14-15).
Isaiah experiences a powerful sense of God’s presence while he is in the temple – perhaps he was a priest there, and was engaged in his duties. The encounter with God allows him to know God as the Holy One, beyond compare. This moment when God reveals himself to Isaiah is one in which the new prophet stands between heaven and earth, with a foot in both! Christ will be the one who bridges this gap definitively in himself. And the encounter is one in which Isaiah receives a purification for the tasks ahead – and so with us: we take up our discipleship strengthened and consecrated by the grace of sacramental living.
Jeremiah is conscious that his calling to serve and become a living word of the Lord happened in his very coming into being: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…” God does this for each of us – he has always had each of us in mind, had his plans for us, conceived us as unique and intimately close to him and He to us. The child in the womb is already a prophet because he speaks to us of God’s loving creativity in the human person. For Jeremiah, God wishes to take away the fear that might accompany a vocation – does God really want this of me? How could I be the bearer of his word? Won’t I look like a hypocrite, or too young, or lacking the holiness and experience that others have? But God chooses; we hear and accept.
Ezekiel is caught up in a great ecstasy! Words aren’t enough to express his experience of God’s presence and so he piles image upon image upon image! Sometimes words can’t express how we feel about God, and we struggle to find the right image for what he means to us. Sometimes no word does him justice and so we can’t say how we feel about him. Sometimes his presence feels like his absence, and I am with Christ on the cross – but Christ on the cross was still the Father’s only Word, and so the profound silence of the cross was still filled with God’s language (St Paul at the beginning of the First letter to the Corinthians speaks about the ‘word (or language) of the cross’).
The Word which came to birth in the silence of the Virgin’s womb makes the new life from God a reality through the silence of the cross.
We are surrounded by companions, yet we are never in a crowd. We live, as it were, in a city, yet we have to contend with no tumult, so that the voice of one crying in the wilderness can be heard by us, provided only that we have interior silence to correspond to the exterior silence that surrounds us. And now if the depths of your soul were to keep a quiet silence, the all-powerful Word would flow secretly into you from the Father’s throne. Happy then is the man who has so fled the world’s tumult, who has so withdrawn into the solitude and secrecy of interior peace that he can hear not only the Voice of the Word but the Word himself: not John but Jesus. (Blessed Guerric of Igny)
Ezekiel’s language is apocalyptic – the revelation (apocalipsis in Greek) of God is powerful. In the midst of all this Ezekiel is conscious that God calls, confirms and commands him: ‘the hand of the Lord was upon him’.
And Amos was going about the everyday business of tending trees! In one way we can’t be sure what it was he did (a dresser of sycamores); in another is calls himself clearly a shepherd or herdsman. But it was in that ordinariness that God called him to challenge profoundly, directly, courageously the moral and social and ethical malpractices of his time and people. Amos doesn’t mess about – his language is filled with imagery and he makes his point clear. The prophet is one who will challenge, whatever the cost to himself.
For each of them, God called them exactly where they were in their lives – he spoke to them in the commonplace, as they went about their ordinary business, in the midst of the mundane.
He addressed a word to them which meant that their lives changed utterly – they left behind the way of life they were living and embraced a new way of living, conscious that the Lord was leading them.
They were men who, contrary to what we might think, remained deeply rooted in the history and events which were their present moment and which defined their brothers and sisters – they were acutely aware of what had gone before in the history of their people, but were entirely switched on to what was happening around them in the now.
They preached a word which, although pointing to a future reality – something that God would bring about in the midst of his people – was already present and working. So, the prophet is not a future teller – he’s a commentator on what God is doing now!
Lastly, at some stage in every prophet’s preaching a subtle change takes place in how he preaches the word of God given to him – he moves from the introductory ‘The Lord says this….’, to speak in the first person – ‘I say….’ In other words, the prophet becomes the word which he speaks.
In recognising that John is a prophet in this sense, with all these others, we can also see something of ourselves here. And it asks questions of us:
How is the word of God being addressed to me now, in the ordinary things and relationships of my life, in my joys, struggles, successes, failures….?
Do I realise that God’s word in me changes me and invites me to a new way of living?
Am I aware that God wishes me to live in this present moment in my history, my Church’s history, in my society’s history, and so speak as his son or daughter in this, and to this historical reality?
Can I make God’s word – challenging and comforting – my own word, at whatever cost it might bring?
The Baptist is conscious that Someone else is coming – he is not to take centre stage but is to give way to this One who is more powerful and who is going to change people’s lives in an altogether new way.
The Baptist speaks about his symbolic washing, but also about the new baptism which is coming, with water and the Holy Spirit. Now, I must take time to consider that I have received this baptism with water and the Holy Spirit.
This is a reality which is dynamic and not static. While it happened in a moment in time in my past it continues to be present as an unfolding reality making me who I am, and not simply what I am. So, I need to recall my baptism, even if I cannot recall the moment of my baptism. It is gateway and path – the rest of my life is my living out of my baptism, my election, my consecration.
Recall for a moment that the Spirit was given in that moment – the Spirit who hovered over the waters at the creation, the Spirit who descends on Jesus at his baptism, the Spirit whom Jesus breathes forth from the cross in the moment of his death, the Spirit who fills those gathered together becoming Church on Pentecost, with his gifts and the life which he brings. To receive the Spirit is to be drawn into the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, and this is what the baptised receive and are asked to live.
John the Baptist, so far as we know, did not receive the baptism of water and the Spirit – so, the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. And he was very great!
*In this lectio and over the course of the next few days, consider your call to be prophet – to be consumed by the word of God which you are consuming, to know that the word which you receive is already changing you and inviting you to new life. To know that the encounter with God’s Word already sets you apart from the society which has difficulty finding ways to belong, and this encounter signals that you belong to God in Christ.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-