Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley on John the Baptist

His Name is John, Daniel Bonnell, 2008

Nativity of John the Baptist
Old Saint Patrick’s, June 24, 2018 
Edward Foley, Capuchin

It is summer: the height of vacation season,
outdoor concerts,
family reunions,
and the national past time
No, not politics, … baseball.

While not a huge baseball fan,
if I am going to preach in Chicago, I have a responsibility
to know how well the Cubs are doing (40 and 28)
and how well the White Sox are not doing (24 and 47).

Of course, that surface information is probably insufficient,
since 9 out of 10 Americans love statistics,
and baseball seems to lead the way here.

For example, there was a recent posting in the blogosphere
about how the curve ball is coming back in Major League Baseball.
Statistics demonstrate that there were almost 8
additional curveballs thrown in the 2016 season
than in 2015,
many of them by the Cubs pitching staff,
which seems to have contributed to their World Series win.

Paralleling this obsession with baseball statistics
is the growth of sports sciences,
which have heighted the introduction
of more quantitative approaches
to coaching and managing in MLB,
like deciding how to arrange the pitching or batting rotation.

Neuroscience is also making its way into sports like baseball
and may actually be able to explain
why the curveball is making a comeback.

Scientists tell us that that much of the effect of a curveball
is the optical illusion
resulting from the way our eyes are designed.

The center of our eyes is made up of tightly packed cells,
but the periphery is made up of loosely packed cells.
Like an HD camera in the center
and a cell phone camera in the periphery.

Batters see incoming ball first with the center of the visual system.
But soon it becomes too fast to track,
so batters switch from central to peripheral vision,
which is when the magic of the curveball occurs
and gives the illusion of a rapid break,
the price of switching from central to peripheral vision.

The reason that I take this excursion
into baseball and curveballs,
central vision and peripheral vision,
is that today the church metaphorically throws us a curveball
that could be more a pious illusion than spiritual reality.

We are supposed to be in Ordinary Time.
Yet, apparently out of nowhere
comes the Solemnity of John the Baptist.

We know John – the scariest character of the Advent season,
badly dressed like a 1st century Palestinian Indiana Jones,
with that distasteful diet of locusts and raw honey.

He certainly has a central role to play in Advent,
so we are resigned to dealing with him then.
But what is he doing intruding into our summer?
I mean, who would ever invite him to a beach party?

From an historical perspective
there are reasonable explanations
why the feast of the Baptist occurs on this date.

A key factor is that the early church did not have
a yearlong liturgical cycle like we have.

Instead of a yearlong plan,
the early church instead followed the seasons
marked by solstices and equinoxes,
longest, shortest, and most equal days of the year.
John the Baptist’s feast falls on a traditional solstice day.

Because of shifting calendars
our summer solstice in 2018 was the 21st of June,
the longest day of sunlight in the northern hemisphere.

For the early church, however, it was the 24th of June.
And as John was considered a prophetic solstice,
the brightest of the ancient prophets,
his feast was symbolically placed
on the day of enduring sun,
as he foretold the coming of the eternal Son of God.

Now you might be saying to yourself,
Hey Padre … thanks for the history lesson,
but I passed that course already and don’t need the credit …
but I will file it under
spiritual tidbits that I can later use
at my next Christian cocktail party.

And I agree that such history is not really persuasive,
which is why I stopped teaching much of it years ago,
even in seminars on the liturgical year.

But if we think this feast is only about history,
about some obscure, long dead herald,
then we have been tricked
into seeing with our peripheral vision –
and spiritually haven’t kept our eye on the ball.

What today’s feast is challenging us to accept
is Advent as solstice,
December in June,
preparation for incarnation while on summer vacation.
Oxymoronic?  Maybe … but think about it this way:

If you are an Anglophile … a royal watcher …
you know that England celebrated the queen’s birthday
on June 9th even though the actually birthday is April 21st.

Is it because the Brits can’t tell time?
Or is it because they understand
that a birth celebration is as Hemmingway would have it,
a moveable feast …
and the essence is not the calendar, but the celebration of life?

Ever know anyone born on Christmas
whose family let them choose another birthday date
that did not collide with this major holiday?

Speaking of Christmas:
We celebrate that as the birthday of Jesus
even though there is no historical evidence
Jesus was born that day.

Just as there is no historical evidence
that the Annunciation took place on the 25th of March,
that Mary was assumed into heaven on August 15th.

And, heresy of heresies,
there is precious little hard evidence
that St. Patrick actually died on the 17th of March.

But if he didn’t, who cares?
We’ll still drink green beer,
wear embarrassing green outfits,
and send out the plumbers’ union to dye the river green,
because the point is not the date,
it’s the celebration.

So as is our custom, we changed the date at Old Saint Patrick’s
and had the parish St. Patrick’s Day Mass
on Sunday the 18th of March this past year.
And no one had a problem with that.

Seeing with the center of the eye and not peripheral vision…
Seeing with the center of the heart…
Seeing with the center of the soul…

reminds us that the season of justice we celebrate at Old St. Pat’s
is not just September, but every month.
The season for celebrating resurrection
is not just Easter, but every Sunday in Ordinary Time.
The season for celebrating Lent and our need
for individual and communal reconciliation
is not just March, but every day in our political history.
And the season for celebrating Advent
is not just December…

For Advent is not simply preparation for Christmas day,
but a deep commitment
to preparing for the very incarnation of God in our world
every moment of human history.
It is a deep commitment
to proclaiming the adventing of God’s reign
in the impertinent present…
in the eternal now…

We do not celebrate the preciousness of nativity,
of babies, of children,
only on the 25th of December around a Christmas tree,

but in the horrific present
when tearful children are pried
from the arms of distraught parents
and placed in detention camps
in apparent defense of our freedom.

We do not celebrate Thanksgiving
only in the presence of an overstuffed bird
and a table set with too many casseroles,
but in the multicolored faces
and diverse faith traditions,
of neighbors and strangers,
who teach us gratitude for a God
who deigns to call each person,
in the stunning rainbow of humanity, a beloved child.

We do not celebrate Mother’s Day
only when we can make the phone call,
send the flowers or chocolates,
plan the brunch,
or prayerfully remember our own mothers
now in God’s embrace,

but when we uphold the dignity of every woman,
of every parent,
of every child, even if not well-mothered,
because they all belong to God,
and so belong to us.

Over the past few years
we have witness what some observers consider
a form of geographic tyranny:
that only those who have been born in a place – the U.S.,
or have somehow bought into that place – the U.S.,
are the only one to enjoy the riches of that place – the U.S.

There is also a parallel form of temporal tyranny
suggesting that a season like Advent only lasts a few weeks,
that the toleration of the stranger has a term limit,
that the hospitality of a nation has a finite shelf-life,
or that the very mercy of God has an expiration date.

John the Baptist impudently shatters such tyrannies
of geographic and calendric borders,
symbolized by his refusal to be confined to December,
his refusal to be captive to a time-bound Advent,
his refusal to be sequestered in the desert.

And so the wild man from beyond the borders
of religious piety… of societal decency…
invades Ordinary Time,
announces that every time is the adventing of God,
and announces that every human boundary
is rejected by the Holy Spirit
who broods where She will.

In his 2004 Testimony: The Word Made Flesh,
poet and prophet Daniel Berrigan penned this “Advent Credo”:

  • It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss –
    This is true: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
  • It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction —
    This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
  • It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word –
    This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder.
  • It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world —
    This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth; and lo, I am with you, even until the end of the world.
  • It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church before we can be peacemakers—
    This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams.
  • It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant for this earth –
    This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

Berrigan concludes: “So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ – the life of the world.”

Advent is again upon us … it is ever upon us.
In the spirit of the Baptist and with the courage of the Baptist
let us herald again the in-breaking of God’s just reign
in our own time,
across every border,
in the face of every prejudice,
through Christ our Lord.

 

Sources: Optical illusion, All Things Considered 23 October 2010.
Daniel Berrigan, Testimony: The Word Made Flesh (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2004); much of the poem was from a speech by the South African theologian Allan Boesak, delivered in Vancouver and document by Susan A. Blain, Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, Volume 2 (Cleveland OH: United Church, 1995).]

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for the reflections.
    We don’t have precise dates for the birth of Jesus – which calendar would we follow: Hebrew, Julian, Gregorian …? But St Augustine wrote [De Trinitate IV, 5(9)]: “For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, 484 neither before nor since.” The feast of St Dismas, the “good thief”, is on 25 March in the Roman Martyrology. The symbolism of the dating is that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date – a kind of providential perfection of life for the Saviour.
    Gabriel said to Mary (Luke 1:36): “She [Elizabeth] who was said to be barren is now in her sixth month.”
    Listen to Mussorgsky’s “Night on the Bare Mountain”, a celebration of St John’s Eve.
    The Book of Armagh, a 9th Century manuscript, records 17 March as the date of Patrick’s death. The nearest we have to an official death certificate!

  2. I was in the congregation. Fr. Foley hit this Advent-in-June liturgical “curve ball” out of the park!

  3. As an armchair astronomer, I love that our liturgical calendar is arranged so that the Nativity of John the Baptist is placed at the summer solstice, just as the Nativity of Our Lord is at the winter solstice. We celebrate the birth of Christ on the darkest day of the year, when the Light of the World comes to be with us. We celebrate the birth of John on the longest day of the year, from which time the days shorten as “I must decrease that he may increase.” (Jn 3:30).

  4. We belong to Old St Pats. Every time, Father Foley is designated to say a certain mass on Sunday, we drive from Darien into the city to hear him . The church is always packed, because he never disappoints the folks in the pews.

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