Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Sun Stood Still

Nativity of John the Baptist

 Throughout the history of Christianity, the liturgical year has been a way that the church has celebrated the redemption story, with each of the cardinal feasts emphasizing a different aspect of the story. What brought further depth of meaning to the celebration was the uncanny correspondence between sacred time and the ordinary seasons of the year. Easter marks the Christian Spring, a time of rejuvenation and rebirth. Christmas comes in the thick of winter, with the winter solstice announcing the Sun’s victory over the cold and dark winter nights. Such correspondence is often lost on us Malaysians who live close to the equator, as we do not have the privilege of celebrating the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter nor do we experience a radical shortening and lengthening of days and nights.

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Birth of St John the Baptist. The Nativity of St John the Baptist on June 24 comes three months after the celebration on March 25 of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel told Our Lady that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy, and six months before the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. The purpose of these festivals is not to celebrate the exact dates of these events, but simply to commemorate them in an interlinking way. Therefore, for those of you who can’t get enough of Christmas and those who bedeck your homes with Christmas decorations all year round, today’s feast provides the first rumblings of the coming storm of Christmas.

The significance of today’s feast of the nativity of St John the Baptist becomes more apparent when we are able to appreciate its correspondence with the Summer Solstice. The word 'Solstice' derives from the Latin term meaning 'sun stood still', as in the winter and summer the sun appears to rise and set in practically the same place. In the northern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice date tends to be either June 21 or 22. Why then do we celebrate the Feast of St John the Baptist on the 24th? This isn’t very clear but just as Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December instead of the 21st of December which marks the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the fixing of the present dates for both celebrations could be due to the inaccurate calculations and the limitations of the astronomical devices available in ancient times.

The birth of St John the Baptist must be truly significant in order for the Church to celebrate this date with its most solemn category of feast days, one which even supplants the liturgy of Sunday. But it is not only the Church that pays tribute to this man. It appears that the cosmos adds its eulogy to the event. The Sun stands still to illuminate this important figure in salvation history. Perhaps the greatest tribute still remains in the hands of our Lord. We remember the words of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, Among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). But this further begs the question:  What’s so great about John the Baptist?

The first answer lies in human destiny and God’s plan of salvation. When the Church celebrates the feasts of saints, it celebrates the victory of the Paschal event that is the eternal life that has been won by these men and women by virtue of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus each feast reminds us of our destiny. As a rule, the church celebrates the feast of a saint once a year, on the anniversary of the saint’s death. Death marks the entry of the saint into eternal life, into the economy of salvation. Although this is the general rule, there are two significant exceptions. Apart from Christ, there are only two others persons whom the Church accords its greatest festal honour to celebrate the event of their conception or birth. These are none other than the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John Baptist.

We celebrate the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a Solemnity to denote the Church’s understanding of her immaculate conception, that is Mary tasted the fruits of redemption not at death but from the very moment of her conception. Although we also celebrate her birthday, it is of a less solemn feast because Mary had already experienced salvation at the moment of her conception in St. Anne’s womb. On the other hand, we celebrate the birth of St John as a Solemnity because at the time of his birth, he had already been admitted into the glorious company of the saints and a full participant in the economy of salvation. This took place during the visitation of Mary to his mother, Elizabeth. Luke’s gospel records the experience and words of Elizabeth who speaks of this event by stating that the child within her womb leapt for joy.

The greatness of St John the Baptist can also be seen in his unique and singular role of linking the Old Covenant or Old Testament to the New. According to St. Augustine, John is the hinge that represents both the old and the new. John the Baptist is the hinge between the Old and New dispensation, the Old and New Testaments. On one side of that door is the Law and the Prophets of Jewish history and tradition. On the other side of that door is Jesus. The father of John, Zachary’s inability to speak on the Jewish side of the door represents the inability of the Old Testament to speak to us or bring us to salvation. With the birth of John and his naming, we move to the other side of the door where salvation is possible through Jesus. In one sense he was like the Biblical prophets that came before him. On the other side, he was the prophet who foresaw the Christ, who recognized the Christ and who initiated the public life of the Christ.  Jesus’ baptism by John and the subsequent message of the Father began the public life of Jesus. In mark’s Gospel this is the event that begins the Gospel.

St John is great because, like many other great personages before him in the Old Testament, he received his name directly from God. The gospel story of the birth of John focuses on the naming ceremony. In biblical times, and still today in many cultures, personal names function the way business names do, that is, they aim to convey what the bearer of the name stands for. Names reveal an essential character or destiny of the bearer. The name John means “God is gracious.” His birth signals the beginning of a new era in God-human relationship, an era to be characterised by grace and not by law. In John we see that God already has a purpose for His children before they come into this world, and so the challenge of life is for them to discover this purpose and to be faithful to its demands.

But perhaps the greatest contribution of St John is seen in his relationship to Christ. He is the one prophesied from of old to be voice crying in the desert calling people to prepare the Way of the Lord. He is the finger that distinguishes and points out the Lamb of God from the crowd. He is the one that announces the greater personage who will come after him, the one who will baptise with fire and the Holy Spirit. He is the one who delivered the message of repentance in order to prepare people to believe in the one who will inaugurate the Kingdom of God. He is the first to lay down his life prefiguring the death of his Master. He is the one whose light must dim, whose influence must decrease, in order that the light of Christ may increase. His greatness lay precisely in this – his very existence, his life was lived wholly for the other. And it was only in the other, in the person of Christ,  that he discovered greatness.

St Augustine saw great significance in this tradition that the Baptist was born at the summer solstice. From the Summer solstice to the Winter solstice, the days will grow shorter while the nights lengthen. Thus, it was not difficult for St Augustine to make the connection with the Baptist’s words in St John’s Gospel ‘He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease’ (John 3.30). Now this may seem bizarre to us, but the movement of the sun and the seasons of the year seem to support the Baptist’s humbling confession. The cycle of shortening days and lengthening nights ends during the Winter Solstice, December 21st. Thereafter, the reverse happens – the days grow longer and the nights grow shorter, thus literally playing out the dynamics of John’s words – “He must increase and I must decrease.” The waning of one central biblical figure marks the waxing of another. The Voice gives way to the Way. The Sun which shines at the centre of its own constellation, a giant among men, now recedes in order that the light of the Other may shine brighter.  John the Baptist, the Summer Sun stands still before the light of the other, the true ‘Sun of Righteousness’ (Malachi 4.2), the ‘Dayspring from on high’ (Luke 1.78), the ‘Light of the world’ (John 8.12, 9.5). Here the greatest among the created men acknowledges its Creator and Lord and bows before him – the eternal Word through whom all things were made.

As we celebrate this Solemnity, our testimonies too must join that of the Baptist, who points to Christ and away from himself.  Christ ‘must increase and I must decrease’ must be a constant life commitment. In a culture that idolises the subjective self, where man has enthroned himself at the centre of his universe, the prophetic witness of John the Baptist reminds us once again that even the greatest among us must fall on our knees to acknowledge the One who is greater. Christ must increase and I must decrease. If the Sun can stand still to mark this event, so can we.

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