The birth and death of St John the Baptist

Proper 10 B

This year, within a fortnight, the Church has the opportunity to reflect on both the birth and death of St John the Baptist, or the Forerunner as he is known in the East. The former is celebrated on 29 June, and while the proper commemoration of the latter on 29 August is absent from the Kalendar of the Episcopal Church (and because the bcp1979 Eucharistic lectionary is modeled very closely upon the Roman Lectionary for Mass, the account is skipped in the in-course readings of the Gospels according to St Matthew and St Mark because in the Roman Catholic Church the latter is read on the 29 August feast), the relevant pericope from the Gospel according to St Mark appears on the Sunday closest to 13 July in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

With the accounts of his birth, life, and death somewhat scattered through the Gospels and the Church’s year, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of the Forerunner, and the attempts of some to recast Advent as a ‘kinder, gentler’ season focused mostly upon Our Lady’s expectancy certainly displace him and his message further. It might be easy to toss this off as a fulfillment of his own statement that ‘[Christ] must increase, and I must decrease’, but for all that he, like all the saints, does and must point to Christ, the dilution of the witness of the one than whom there was none greater born of a woman does not serve him or us well: for his calling is our own: to prepare the way of the Lord; to make His paths straight; to give knowledge of His salvation to His people; to testify to the light; to baptize and to acclaim the Lamb of God; to rejoice at the voice of the Bridegroom; to speak truth; to call people to repentance, justice, solidarity, and the bearing of good fruit; to decrease and perhaps to die.

The conjunction of this account of St John (and the recent celebration of his birth) with that of King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant in the Revised Common Lectionary’s ‘semi-continuous’ track of Old Testament Lessons offers some interesting resonances, ways in which both the arrival of the Ark and the coming of St John indeed point to the advent of Our Lord (one doubts that the shapers of the rcl had these resonances in mind, as this would seem simply to be the meeting of two semi-continuous and unrelated story-arcs, but it is just possible).

Many interpreters this Sunday will no doubt have teased out interesting connections or contrasts between the dances of David and of Herod’s daughter. But I would like to note the connections between David’s dance before the Ark and other dances before other arks in the tradition, connections which the words concerned help us to make.

What we miss in English translations is the connections between the words (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) translated here as dance and those translated as rejoice elsewhere. Both sets of words have at root a sense of leaping, springing, bounding, bucking; frequentative or other intensifying morphemes give the sense of, on the one hand, dancing, and on the other, rejoicing exceedingly. In English, after all, we say that we ‘jump for joy’ or that our hearts ‘leap’ or ‘well up’.

And where else do we find these words? We read in Lk 1 that the Forerunner leapt in his mother’s womb upon the arrival of Our Lord in the womb of His Mother at her Visitation. The Latin verb here is exsultô, which is used to translate the activity of Our Lady herself, agalliáô, a few verses later in the Magnificat (‘My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior’), and even that of Our Lord, the ‘Sun’ of Ps 19, upon emerging from his tent / tabernacle / pavilion / chuppah / thalamus (‘He rejoices as a champion to run his course’), which is to say, from His Mother’s womb.

For just as the Ark of the Covenant is the sign and locus of the presence of God in the world, so Our Lady carries God-in-Christ. The Ark contained the Tablets of the Law (Torah); Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, the true Torah or Way of the Lord, the very logic and fabric of all that is. And the Eucharistic tabernacle, also veiled and honored, the Ark of the New Covenant, contains the very same: that which joins God and man.

There are further connections that might be made between these accounts: musicians are appointed to greet the Ark (they ‘cry out’ just as does St Elizabeth); the coming of Our Lord and His Forerunner are greeted with the great canticles of St Luke’s Gospel. And the rcl’s pairing of Ps 24 with this account (though Ps 132 might have been an even more appropriate pairing) is another Advent connection; this Psalm is frequently used in Advent (a connection made even more explicit, or broadened to cover more than one sense of Advent, in the hymn based on this Psalm, ‘Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates’ [436]).

The Forerunner, languishing in prison, understandably wondered whether his cousin was the Chosen One, or whether his own life and ministry had been for nought. Should we ever wonder the same – whether Christ has come, is coming – then we can truly rejoice in Our Lord’s reassurance to St John (as to the hearers of the Beatitudes) that wherever and whenever the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them, the Kingdom is present, and the least in that Kingdom is even greater than this last and greatest prophet.

Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit one God, for ever and ever.
     Collect for the Nativity of St John the Baptist