Bonfire Night


The Readings for the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist

There is no one among your relatives who has this name.

Luke 1:61 (NABRE)

HOLY MOTHER CHURCH Celebrates three people especially, noting their conceptions as well as their births and deaths: Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. (The Baptist’s Conception on 23 September is celebrated now only in the Eastern rites.) These three must be holy folks indeed if literally their entire life is enclosed in feast days! Jesus, we can understand. Our Protestant brethren may disagree on Mary, but she is the Mother of God, after all. But why John?

The people in the local community say “no one in your family has this name”. This is an important code: in the Jewish tradition you name a child after a dead relative. (To name them after someone living would be to wish the living person dead.) The Community is saying to Elizabeth, “You’re not honoring anyone’s memory.” And she’s saying, “Yes, you’re right. This is an entirely new gift from God.” (Jonathan means gift of God.)

This birth is a hinge between the Old and the New, both being needed: the proclamation makes possible the fulfillment. The fulfillment arises from the hope proclaimed. The parents know that the Messiah is nearly here.

John is always depicted on icon screens in the Eastern Churches and he is always to the right of Jesus on the icon called the “Deesis” or “Supplication”.

In the Verses skipped by today’s Gospel reading, John’s Father calls him the “prophet of the most high”. That’s from the Canticle of Zachariah which the western Church prays every day at Lauds. Where have we heard something like that before? Rather recently, actually, by way of liturgical coincidence, we heard the story of Melchizedek, priest of God Most High. John is Prophet of the Most High. Jesus, of course, is the Most High God. John is the one “preparing his way”.

Looking again at the Deesis icon above, it seems that it can be read as the OT (reading from right to left in Hebrew) in the person of John, together with the NT in the person of Mary, interceding for us to Jesus. The last man of the OT with the first woman of the NT, both praying to God the Most High.

Today’s birth of something entirely new is placed (by the Church’s calendar) on the longest day of the year (as it was once calculated). The thing about this day is that every day after today is shorter than the day before. The Sun is losing it’s power. The pagan, solar gods are passing away as of today. John is the hinge of between old and new even outside of the Jewish tradition.

John’s birth (in Europe) is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks. I wish we did so here!

Today is the day to let the old things pass away so that God can bring something new out of the old world you’ve lived in. He will give you a new name that is not honoring anyone in the past, but rather proclaiming your new life in him.

It’s a free gift.

The Kenotic Wheel of the Year


The Readings for Solemnity of the Nativity of St John Baptist

Cum impleret autem Joannes cursum suum, dicebat : Quem me arbitramini esse, non sum ego, sed ecce venit post me, cujus non sum dignus calceamenta pedum solvere. 
As John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’

There are many “bonfire nights” in the Irish and English cultural landscape moving through the year from Midsummer to Midwinter. The next ones for the North of Ireland are on the 12th of July for Loyalist communities and 8th of August for Nationalist communities. There is Guy Fawkes night. And Christmas bonfires as well. But last night was also one, the eve of St John’s Day. These fires collectively mark the beginning of the “dark half of the year”.  The pagans used to celebrate Midsummer with bonfires on the 21st. But they moved it over to the night of the 24th to mark the passing of time in sync with this Roman and Christian invention, the Fixed Calendar. And these fires teach us a lesson, for John’s birth is celebrated as the light begins to decrease. This symbolizes his whole purpose: to pass away. John’s purpose is to point to the real and eternal light… and just as his decreasing light passes away at the Midwinter, lo, the Christ is born. And real, eternal Light begins to grow. So the Church blesses the bonfires that mark a passing moment and show eternal truth.

This is us. This mission of St John to decrease is also our mission.  As we finish our course we point to Jesus. This passing through the dark half of the year is our Christian witness in this world of Darkness, punctuated by the fires of martyrdom and sacrificial love. Christians don’t count terrestrial birthdays, properly, but heavenly ones. My Saints’ days are way more important than my birthday and each one of those is actually the day the saint dies… is born into heaven. We must decrease until Christ is all in all.

St John’s whole mission was to pass away after pointing to Jesus and naming him the Bridegroom of Israel, the Lamb of God, just as the Best Man is only there to witness the wedding and maybe to sign a document or two. Our whole mission is to point others to Jesus in exactly the same way. Our state in life may be different in that not all of us are monastics, not all of us are priests, but all of us are called to be Christians, that is, Little Christs. We are all to sacrifice ourselves in the continual outpouring of the Son to the Father, in the continual giving of the Father to the Son, in the continual pouring of the Holy Spirit on the World. We are both the vessels of reception and of consumption for what is poured in is poured out as well. We are filled with the wine of God’s love only to be consumed by our neighbors.

We stand aside so that others may encounter Christ. It is fashionable to say “encounter Christ in us” but it might be better said, “instead of us” for as certainly as we are sinners, it is Christ’s love that other’s feel when we love. It is Christ’s strength that others feel when  we act. It is Jesus’ hands that intercede when we kneel in prayer for and rise in service of Neighbor. The Saints teach us to begin each encounter with another soul with a prayer that Christ will act… for we will certainly mess it up. Mindful of course, that any action is about the salvation of the human in front of us (which cannot but further our own salvation). We may think it’s a business deal or a phone call to customer service, or only a bank teller. But we are there as preachers, as little John the Baptists. If that mission fails it matters not if we get the contract or rob the bank.

St John decreases, so do we: that Christ may increase to all and in all until he is all in all and we are one with the Trinity in blessed love. Last night the wheel of the year turned just one more notch towards eternity and all of creation rejoiced. The longest day means the beginning of darkness. And St John’s Day means that Jesus is not far away.

Six months to Christmas and counting down… 


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In the Biblical Sense…


The Readings for the Vigil of the Nativity of St John Baptist

Priusquam te formarem in utero, novi te 
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you  

I’ve been reading Brant Pitre’s Jesus the Bridegroom which sets out, like many of Dr Pitre’s works, to remind Catholics of the Jewish roots of our religion. As I’ve said from time to time, we are Jews, just different Rabbis. Anyway, just before I got to Mass tonight (it’s late Saturday as I write) he was discussing the verb “Yada” which means “to know”. But it means to know intimately, by experience. For example, it’s in the Eden story as “the knowledge of Good and Evil” meaning that eating the fruit was not some Gnostic initiation, but rather the act of disobeying was the event of knowing in itself. It’s also in the Eden story as “Adam knew his wife”, the source and meaning of “to know in the Biblical sense”.  It’s the level of intimacy that requires doing to know.

Dr Pitre points out that God promises the People of Israel that they will know Him and He will know them at this level of intimacy.

When I got to Mass, this word, yada, was on the lips of the preacher, pointing out that God knows us, Yada, all that intimately. This is promised in this reading from Jeremiah: “before you were formed in the womb, I yada’ed you.” It was, the homilist said, the job of the priest to serve as Matchmaker, as Yenta, for this divine intimacy. But, more importantly, it was for all of us to experience and to serve as catalysts of this relationship for others.

This is the level at which God seeks us out and yet without our consent will not go. This is the deep level at which we are all wooed yet we constantly seek to hide away like Adam in the Garden. There is no place we go that God is not willing to go with us to bring us back to Him.

Then we sang, during communion, this hymn, for what else is the Eucharist, but the eternal feast of God’s Bridal Chamber, present to us here and now?

O thou, who at thy Eucharist didst pray
that all thy church might be for ever one,
grant us at every Eucharist to say
with longing heart and soul, ‘Thy will be done’:
O may we all one bread, one body be,
through this blest sacrament of unity.
..  ..  …
For all thy church, O Lord, we intercede;
make thou our sad divisions soon to cease;
draw us the nearer each to each, we plead,
by drawing all to thee, O Prince of Peace:
thus may we all one bread, one body be,
through this blest sacrament of unity.
 ..  ..  ..
We pray thee too for wanderers from thy fold;
O bring them back, good Shepherd of the sheep,
back to the faith which saints believed of old,
back to the church which still that faith doth keep:
soon may we all one bread, one body be,
through this blest sacrament of unity.
 ..  ..  ..
So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease,
may we be one with all thy church above,
one with thy saints in one unbroken peace,
one with thy saints in one unbounded love:
more blessèd still, in peace and love to be
one with the Trinity in Unity.

The whole point of the Mass, the Church, the Priesthood, and of all the Baptized is to draw all the world back into this unity of Love and Person, of Knowing and Being, of Presence and Intimacy. We are wooing the world to God.


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