We’re used to considering John the Baptist during Advent (“Make straight the path of the Lord!”) but how does he serve as a pattern for Lent? That was the topic of Fr. Michael Keating’s presentation at the Church of St. Helena's Lenten series last Friday night - a stimulating, richly layered, and inspiring talk.
In the life of John the Baptist we see the model for the life of Christ, the lives of the great figures of the Old Testament, and the lives we are called to live.
Moses. Abraham. David. Solomon. Isaiah. Their lives follow a similar pattern:
- an indication that they have been singled out,
- an initial success in their mission,
- a challenge to that mission,
- a perception that the mission has ended in failure.
As John begins his preaching he develops a following. (In fact, it’s likely he had a greater following in the first century than Jesus.) So well known is John that the King and Queen, Herod and Herodias, come to view him as a threat. Finally, after a challenge to the moral status of the royal couple’s message, John is imprisoned, and suffers an ignominious death by beheading at the whim of a petulant girl. End of story.
Notice how this parallels the life of Jesus, the Man Whose life he heralds. Jesus, too, is the product of a miraculous birth. There is the prophesy of Simeon that foretells great things. (“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against,” Luke, 2:34) Once His public ministry begins, His following grows from a handful of disciples (including some of the disciples of John) to several hundred. He, too, runs afoul of the authorities. He is imprisoned (betrayed, even, by one of his own followers), tried, and dies a most ignominious death on the Cross. Just another obscure figure who briefly rises to a modest prominence and then fades away. End of story.
Except, of course, that it isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning.
John’s life didn’t end in failure. We know that. Here it is two thousand years later, and we're still talking about him. Jesus’ life didn’t end in failure, either. (Herod's fame, by contrast, only extends to being a footnote in our discussions on Jesus and John.) And this knowledge is central to understanding the Christian idea of life.
The pattern isn't limited to the Old Testament. Let’s move to a more recent example - St. Thomas More, for instance. A distinguished jurist. Lord Chancellor. Friend of Henry VIII. One of the most respected men in Europe. And yet he throws it all away on a dream, standing on a silly thing like principle. He is arrested and imprisoned, put through a sham trial, convicted on the basis of perjured testimony, and suffers an ignominious death. Some considered the life of St. Thomas More to have ended in failure. Yet we remember him today, even as the names of his accusers have faded into the dustbin of history.
The definition of success can’t be limited to earthly concepts. Otherwise, where would we be? Abraham didn’t see descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea. Moses didn’t reach the Promised Land. David didn’t build the Temple. St. Thomas More didn’t stop the remarriage of Henry VIII or the persecution of Catholics in England. By our standards, their lives ended in failure.
Of course, you might think, it’s obvious that these great figures weren’t failures in life. Who would dare to term the life of Christ a failure? Or John’s, or any of the others? So true, but the rewards weren’t at all obvious, not right away. After all, Christ’s disciples walked away from the Tomb thinking it was all over, finished, kaput.
It’s only with the passage of time and perspective that we can recognize the impact a life has. And even then, it’s often with the understanding that the greatest benefits may come tens or hundreds of years later. That’s why, as Fr. Keating stressed, our belief is built on faith, rather than feelings. We may all feel our lives to be failures, but it’s because we don’t have access to all the information. It’s likely that we’ll never know the lives we’ve touched, the influence we’ve had, the impact we’ve made, until we reach Heaven and are permitted to see how we’ve made a difference. St. Thomas went to the gallows with the certainty that his life was not one of failure, but he couldn’t know that, not based on any human feelings. His certainty rested on faith, and the knowledge that “Nothing is impossible with God.” (If you recall the pivotal scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence tells George Bailey that “no man is a failure who has friends.” George's problem was that he felt he was a failure, but didn't have the faith to accept the truth without it being shown to him - in a vision, as it were.)
So far, so good. But, you might ask, what does this have to do with you or me? Yes, John the Baptist was a great man. Yes, I can understand how his life models that of Christ, or the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. Yes, I understand how the great saints follow in his footsteps. But what am I to take from this? How likely is it that I’ll ever be called upon as a martyr?
It’s true that most of us won’t wind up as martyrs, at least in the literal sense. (Although based on the direction this society seems to be going in, the future is anyone’s guess.) But there is a different kind of martyrdom in store for the believer – the death to self.
Jesus Himself provides us the clue. If you remember yesterday’s Gospel, He reminds us that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) And this, I think, is the central key to our understanding.
In verse 25 of that same passage from John, Jesus adds, “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” For even if we don’t experience a literal, bloody death, we are still called upon to offer up our lives in a bloodless death – a death to ourselves. A death to our wants and desires, the weaknesses and attachments that hold us to this world and prevent us from focusing on the world to come. That is the kind of death that John’s life foretells for us. And while this can mean a literal bodily death, in most cases that death is simply the confirmation of a decision that came much earlier. Like the grain of wheat, it is only from the death to self that we start to bear fruit.
With this understood, let’s go back to the model of John one last time and superimpose it over our own. We are born, a miracle in itself. We live in the flower of youth, with the health and the enthusiasm that follows. We find success in our personal and professional lives; a solid career, a loving spouse, a caring family. At some point in our lives we feel as if we’re on top of the world. And then it changes. Our bodies begin to slow down, we can’t travel at the speed we once had. And we die an ignominious death: either through accident or the ravages of old age, when we’re reduced to mewling, puking infants.
We’ve reached the end of the line. No matter what we’ve accomplished, no matter how much wealth we’ve accumulated or prestige we’ve gathered or success we’ve achieved or fun we’ve had, we have not achieved immortality; by earthly standards, we have utterly failed.
But it is Christ’s death on the Cross that sanctifies our own deaths. It is our willingness to die to ourselves that allows us to join Him on that Cross. As we die with Christ, we shall also live with Him, in the Resurrection on the last day. And there we will, pray God, have eternal life. And there will we truly find the measure of our lives.
John the Baptist calls to us even now, from beyond the pages of history; he asks us to join him in following the Lamb of God. It is what our Lenten observation is all about. And through John’s example, may we find success in Lent, success that will carry us throughout the years, and into eternity.