Enjoy this piece from Matt Beck on this important feast. -Ed.
“…the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.” These words, spoken by St. John the Baptist in respect of the Savior, could just as appositely be said by us in respect of John. Upon a prayerful survey into the readings assigned by the Church to the feast of his nativity, the prospective commentator, if he is at all illumined by the Holy Ghost, is impressed first of all by the great font of mysteries bubbling up before his eyes, by the febrility of so much divine largesse lavished in quick succession, and by the many and fine-grained allusions to prophecies that are here fulfilled, proclaimed, or interpreted. Although my heart leaps at the disclosure of all this, my mouth is restrained from glossing on it; for such an office has not been given to me, lacking as I do the teaching authority that Holy Orders would confer; and if it be objected here that mysticism is by no means confined to professed ecclesiastics, I would answer that my own lingering impurities but poorly dispose me burst forth in canticles. Heaven calls my will, but earth has sealed my lips. Thus, feeling most unworthy and unable to add aught to those commentaries that are of a mystical or exegetical nature, I have, in no small vexation of mind, proposed to tease out, to make available for reflection, some themes that are present in the account of John’s nativity in such a manner as will ignite the fear of God rather than presume it (for such virtues cannot be too little presumed these days); and in so doing discharge my obligation to magnify the holy forerunner, though I have perhaps but taken up a writing tablet and on it put, “His name is John.”
While there is no end to the wonderful things we might justly say of St. John the Baptist, and while the unicity of God’s self-revelation in Scripture would serve to make all those things applicable in some way or another, today we will hold to the spirit of the particular feast and its readings by focusing only on his nativity, the description of which is to be found entirely (and exclusively) in the first chapter of St. Luke, with some preparatory backward glances at Isaias and Jeremias. Therefore any extensive discussion of his life and preaching, his baptism of repentance, his identification of the Lord, or his persecution by Herod, must be left out of the account for the time being. These events belong, properly speaking, to a later phase of John’s life and, more generally, to a later stage of salvation history, the specific purpose of which was to prepare for and highlight the public ministry of Jesus Christ. In the present instance there is much that remains hidden; and how much more must it have remained hidden to John’s contemporaries who had yet to see the events play out in their fullness. It is a truth firmly established that the entire essence of John’s life, the very nature and purpose of his existence, was to “make straight the paths of the Lord,” to be a preparation for Jesus Christ. Insofar as the entire Old Testament, the Law and the Prophets—nay, the very nation of Israel—is itself a preparation for Christ, St. John the Baptist stands as the culmination of all that went before him; hence there is “no greater born of woman.” But the preparer himself was without any definite preparation of his own. We wish to avoid formulations of the sort “the preparation for the preparation was…” if only because they have the appearance of involving us in an infinite regress, when we know that revelation has a beginning and an end. Moreover, we wish to avoid them because they are wrong, because they belie John’s character as a forerunner. The coming of John was not “announced” by a previous revelation; he was himself an announcement. An announcement is a kind of signal that prompts us to orient our concern in a specified manner and direction. That which John signifies is the presence of the Messias in the world. We may take Isaias 28:16 to be a foreshadowing of that announcement, wherein we read the voice of God saying, “Behold I will lay a stone in the foundations of Sion….” If Jesus Christ is the stone in that description, then John can be said to have the character of the “Behold.” He is the quintessential “Here!” and “Harken!” and “Lo!” It is therefore no departure from truth to say that John’s life ought to mirror the ontology of an announcement. By viewing his nativity in that light we can develop the following themes.
A sort of holy mist hangs over the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, which is the envelopment of grace descending. The story begins with the sudden, unanticipated, and most extraordinary pregnancies of two women: Mary, who shall give birth to Christ, and Elizabeth, who shall give birth to John. In both cases the archangel Gabriel is commissioned to foretell the good news. His appearance is abrupt and awe-inspiring—something decidedly supernatural which occasions the wonderment of Mary and the downright disbelief of Zacharias. The pregnancies he foretells each involve a circumstance usually thought to render such things impossible in the ordinary course of nature, for Mary is to conceive without having known man and Elizabeth will conceive in her old age after a lifetime of barrenness. The strangeness of these events, as well as their angelic heralding, are meant as signals to draw our attention. They are, to use a modern metaphor, a flashing red light which indicates something of immediate importance happening within our environment.
It is not possible to accurately interpret these data according to our everyday concern, or that which Christian philosophizing traditionally refers to as our “natural mind.” However, here we must distinguish “according to” from “on the basis of.” Strictly speaking, it is not possible to penetrate any divine mystery without the supernatural light of faith. A self-contained mind which understood only natural causes would not be capable of discerning anything miraculous in these pregnancies; hence “according to” such a mind certain elements of the story must either be superstitious or false. On the other hand, the proposition that there may be supernatural causes at work in the world as well as natural causes is itself a datum that our natural mind can comprehend. Any miracle or sign from God, in order to be understood as such, must involve an awakening of this sense of supernatural operations. These operations disclose themselves as a suspension of those effects which ordinary natural causes would enjoin; as a deviation from the expected outcome. The expectation pertains to our everyday concern, to the outcome we would calculate upon when making our way through the world under ordinary circumstances. In the course of a miracle this outcome is taken away; i.e. there is a very real sense in which we are deprived of something that belongs to us: our ordinary world (even though something much better is substituted for it). The loss of our object of everyday concern raises an alarm with us; it is “on the basis of” this disruption of nature that the awareness of the miraculous as such first obtrudes upon our consciousness. It is the signal of a divine operation. All Christian fear, awe, and joy is founded upon that to which this signal adverts. Miracles are a symptom of the divine presence. In a miracle God Himself does not appear, but His love and power are manifested.
So much could be said of any miracle, but how forcibly is the point brought home when the event in question is a miraculous birth! It marks the child as destined for God’s special handiwork all of his life. But as every birth are preceded by a pregnancy, the miraculous character of the birth can only be entailed upon it by the presence of the same specific character in the impregnation, by God acting literally as begetter of the child in a greater-than-ordinary way. The question “And who is the father?” will naturally arise whenever a new pregnancy is first brought to our attention. It is primal; it insists on being asked, even though it is often suppressed out of delicacy. Zacharias is certainly the natural father of John; but we are given to believe that the act could not have been accomplished without divine assistance, and God wishes this to be known by everyone. This manner of birth links John back to such figures as Isaac, Samson, and Samuel, and all of them to Jesus their head. Here we see the “Behold” of God announcing itself in and through the miraculous birth of John.
But a pregnancy, though it reveals much, also conceals much. The greatness of the father is shown through the pregnancy, and the greatness of the son foreshadowed; but the inner workings are of necessity hidden. In the Gradual for today we hear the voice of God speaking through the prophet Jeremias saying, “Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee,” with the implication being that only God could know or sanctify anyone in those conditions. Pregnancy in general is a time of secrets, of brooding, of preparing, of silent and unobserved growth, of the rumblings of something about to happen, of being directed and oriented towards something that “is” but is not yet, though it is also something that must be and will be. What better metaphor is there for the vocation of the forerunner than pregnancy? For as pregnancy goes before birth, so John goes before the face of the Lord. Pregnancy makes straight the path of a new being coming into the world, just as John makes straight the paths of the Lord. And as pregnancy is the sign or symptom that points forward to new life, so John is the sign that points to Jesus, the life of the world.
We have said how God’s grace, as it pertains to these events, is like the mist, like the gentle rain descending to fertilize the earth with Jesus and John; however, it is also like the gathering storm clouds, which alike are described as “pregnant” with an imminent deluge. The supernatural character of the sign ensures that our everyday concern is disturbed. We are alerted here to the tremendous portents of what is to come. Let us not, therefore, fail to abide in this mystery. Let us not become functional materialists with respect to a miracle which, if we are honest with ourselves, has probably dimmed in our appreciation through frequent and careless perusal. The sign calls us to sit up, to pay attention. That we must.
III: An Imposed Silence
The impending birth of John was first foretold to his father. Zacharias was of the priestly caste, and it so happened one day that it fell to his lot to offer incense in the sanctuary. While he was doing this he unexpectedly meets St. Gabriel the archangel standing by the altar of incense and, himself being very much afraid, is treated to the typical angelic salutation: “Fear not.” Gabriel then goes on to tell him that his prayer has been heard, that his wife Elizabeth will bear him a son, and such a son as has scarcely been heard of in all the world. His name will be called John, the angel tells him. He will go forth in the spirit and power of Elias, and be filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb. As if this were not enough, we hear that his destiny is to prepare for the Lord a perfect people. Zacharias has much to be thankful for; but instead of gratitude, incredulity dominates his thinking. He returns a question to the angel, “Unde hoc sciam?” Now this phrase can be literally translated as “How shall I know this,” but that rather fails to capture the spirit of the thing. Sciam, the verb participle referring to Zacharias’ knowing, is cognate with the noun scientia, meaning the understanding of demonstrable knowledge. Zacharias is in effect saying that this makes no sense at all. A more colloquial translation of his question would read something like, “How do you expect me to wrap my mind around that?”—or perhaps, if we wish to be particularly uncharitable to the poor man, “What do you take me for, an idiot?” Therefore Gabriel, much resenting this impudence, and perhaps astonished to find such unbelief in a consecrated priest of the Most High, imposes upon him the punishment that he shall not be able to speak until the child is born. We can imagine Gabriel departing from thence in a huff, with even more than the usual archangelic swiftness.
The ‘calm before the storm’ is a phenomenon familiar to all of us. Whenever you are caught beneath the final stages of a developing thunderstorm, before the outflow boundary hits, the winds fall, the clouds lower and darken, barometric pressure drops, and voices refuse to carry through the thin air. These are all signs associated with ominousness—in fact signs so engrained as such by experience as to be practically synonymous with it. And if these are the signs that attend a natural storm, how much more ominous must the supernatural calm imposed on Zacharias have appeared in the minds of all those about him? For nine months he could utter not a word. The gathering storm of God had sucked the voice right out of his bosom. It is as if God were saying: “I will allow no disbelief, no casualness, no ignorant speculation, no supercilious disregard, no intimations of doubt, to mar what I am doing. The storm shall announce itself by its own calm.” Zacharias becomes as silent as a stone, but in the eeriness of his reticence the stone cries out.
As the angel promised him, Zacharias’ power of speech is restored to him at the birth of John, whereupon he holds forth in an outpouring of praise and prophecy known as the Canticle of Zacharias. This is the Holy Ghost’s own “commentary” on the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, so I advise everyone to read it today. It contains, at least in germ, everything that can be said on the subject. That is far too much mystery for us to delve into in detail, but in keeping with the theme of this essay I will briefly mention one particular aspect. Zacharias is said to be “filled with the Holy Ghost” when he speaks. In doing so he has become a personae (literally ‘a mask’) of the Holy Ghost, who is speaking through him. The Spirit of God reveals Himself while concealing Himself, preserving the truth of Jesus’ statement that “No one has seen God,” even though His revelation is even now all around them. What we see is the signal alerting us to His presence, the symptom of something which does not itself appear. The signal conduces to a state of fear and readiness to receive the Word, which shall be our final subject.
IV: Anxiety and Penitence
When Zacharias’ tongue is finally loosed, the Gospel records that “fear fell upon all their neighbors” and they wondered one to another, “What a one, think ye, shall this child be?” This tells us that the signal has gotten across. Disturbance of everyday concern, the apprehension in the face of the supernatural, has, for the time being, asserted itself. However, if the matter were to end there it would leave us standing on the edge of a precipice. The wonders of God have been displayed for us and, without being themselves chaotic or unreasonable, have flummoxed our ordinary understanding. We are now aware of the wisdom and power of God as well as our own dependence upon His sufferance, which is a most uncomfortable place to be in. The abyss of anxiety opens up before us when the miracle deprives us of our ordinary world. Having been conducted to such a state, it is necessary to ask the question, “Now what?”
The question cannot be answered by dialectics alone, for having gone beyond the boundary of the natural light we no longer have any premises to reason about. The answer, when it arrives, will not be contrary to logic, but it cannot be logically deduced from preexistent foundational knowledge. We need, as it were, a new premise which only revelation can supply. It would be cheating at this point to take what we already know from later in the text, and from the entirety of the Christian witness concerning John, and retroject it upon his birth narrative. Let us try to abstract from all that (even though it can never fully be done) and imagine ourselves among Zacharias’ neighbors, who had yet to experience anything further. What clue did they have as to John’s destiny? We turn again to the Canticle, wherein we read such lines as: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people,” and: “To give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins.” We recall again that Gabriel declared he was to prepare for the Lord a perfect people. Do these statements seem to point in a definite direction?
John is here to signal the day of salvation, to give testimony to the Light. He is an indicator that Emmanuel—God with us—has entered the world. To this end he is very irritating, for so befits his role as a signal. Alarms, sirens, klaxons, and other instruments of warning are not chosen on account of their pleasantness. Their job is to raise anxiety, for through them the environment announces to us that something demands our immediate attention. By such devices we are brought to a state of readiness to receive what is approaching. In readying ourselves we must adapt ourselves to threat, and the threat that John announces is this—Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.