HOMILY: Mt 11: 11-15

Christ our Friend

THERE HAS NOT ARISEN AMONG THOSE BORN OF WOMEN ANY ONE GREATER THAN JOHN THE BAPTIST. John the Baptist appears in the Bible as a prophet who belongs more to the New Israel than to the Old. Even though his preaching and death took place prior to Jesus' inauguration of the Church and the New Testament, he is so joined to Christ that their memory is inseparable. In fact, St. Mark presented John's preaching as the beginning of the Gospel, so that his message belongs to the New Covenant, though the only Scripture he knew was that of the Old Testament. The first sentence of his own work refers to John as it describes his teaching as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. It reads as follows: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the son of God, as it is written in the prophets, ‘Behold I am sending my angel before your face who will prepare your way before you.'" In the icon tradition of the East John the Baptist is often portrayed with angels' wings to indicate his role as the angel, that is to say, the messenger who goes before the face of the Lord to prepare hearts for his coming.

As we just heard in today's reading, Jesus considered John not only a prophet but the greatest of prophets and in a manner, the greatest of men. He was recognized by the poor of the Lord already in his life time as a major figure speaking on behalf of the holiness of God. The fact that the civil and religious leaders and the learned of his own people rejected and finally killed him caused him to be considered a true martyr so that as much by his death as by his preaching he prepared the way of the Lord. His death was seen by Jesus himself as well as by the later church as a type of the future violent death of Jesus himself. Not only did John prepare the coming of the Lord, he trained the first men who became Jesus' disciples and pointed out to them that he was the one sent by God to take away the sins of the world. His words are repeated in our liturgy at the time of communion as a perpetual reminder of Jesus' role as the one who redeems and purifies by his sacrificial death.

The voice of John still resounds in the Gospels as coming from a desert region in which the transcendent God dwells in all his holiness. He embodies in his life as well as in his speech as it were, the majesty and purity of the living God. It is most fitting then that this text should be read today when we commemorate the saint who perhaps more than any other figure since the Baptist speaks in the same accents of a pure faith and conviction based on personal encounter with the holy God. St. John of the Cross made the transcendent being of God, as revealed by Jesus Christ, the central theme of his teaching and the fundamental truth on which he so consistently based his whole life. He differs from John the Baptist, of course, inevitably, in a number of respects, but in this emphasis on the absolute holiness and infinitude of the Divine and living God they are at one. The Spanish Carmelite, a gifted poet whose writings contributed to the creation of the modern Spanish language, emphasized the element of spiritual beauty that totally surpasses any thing we can know or imagine and which is the basis of his transcendence. Even more significantly, John of the Cross speaks with the authority of experience of the tender love of God that He manifests in his relations with his creatures. If he focuses so much on the need for purification of the senses and of the spirit by the dark nights, it is because only those whose souls are strong and pure by the action of God can bear the revelation of his love. One of his best known poems speaks from the experience of these mysteries.

<BLOCKQUOTE>Oh, living flame of love That tenderly woundest my soul in its deepest centre, /Since thou are no longer oppressive, perfect me now if it be thy will, Break the web of this sweet encounter (Living Flame of Love, tr. E. A. Peers, Westminster 1949, 19). </BLOCKQUOTE>

John the Baptist did not only preach the need for repentance and purification. He also proclaimed God's love as revealed in the presence of his Son whom John describes as the bridegroom whose ardent affection leads him to come to his people to make her his worthy bride. We, who form the church assembled here, are invited to become that bride of the Spirit, made pure and holy by a life of faith and fidelity. Our redeemer is the Holy One of Israel in the glorified body of Christ who comes even to us at this Eucharist, to cleanse us and make us capable of receiving and sustaining the surpassing love that he and the Father bear us in the Spirit. May we receive him with a strong faith and desire that attaches us to him with an unbreakable bond of love.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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