Sunday, December 17, 2017

the Baptist's silent preaching

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading over the last two Sundays have focussed on St John the Baptist. This is as it should be. The Baptist, also known as the Precursor in the Latin or Western Church, and the Forerunner in the Eastern, prepared the way for our Lord; and as we look back to the time when he first came, and look forward to when he will come again, it is only right that we keep in our minds this great saint, of whom Christ himself said that among those born of women none greater had arisen.

John, we know, was a great preacher; people flocked to hear him from all the region and beyond. But preaching, we must remember, is not always done with words. It is also done by our actions, by the way we lead our lives. My late mother, may she rest in peace, was very fond of the saying that you are all doubtless familiar with: actions speak louder than words. And St Francis of Assisi is famously credited with saying: preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.

And St John, we know from his actions, preached God's truth very well by his actions. His austere manner of living – making his home in the desert, wearing the humblest of clothing, eating a spare diet of what came to hand – this, of course, preached powerfully of the way that those who love God must not be overly-concerned with the material comforts of this life. But his wordless preaching spoke even more powerfully when he was faced with adversity. There are always people in the world who do not appreciate the truth. It places them in the uncomfortable position of having to either amend their lives and live according to it or be exposed to all the world as being numbered among those who wilfully and knowingly break God's law.

And so those who are powerful enough seek a third option. They call upon those who God has sent to speak his truth to speak lies and declare that to be the truth instead. This is the situation that St John faced. The ruler of that region, King Herod, was in an illicit sexual relationship; he was in a marriage that was forbidden. No one dared to speak out about the wrong being publicly done by the most powerful man in the land save St John. And for speaking the truth he was imprisoned; and later unjustly executed.

The martyrdom of John has spoken powerfully to Christians down through the ages. His example has told generation after generation of those within the Church how it is they must behave when the powerful of this world – whether that be individuals in authority, powerful groups in society, or when the masses have their passions inflamed and clamour for falsehoods rather than truth – try to water down the Gospel message or declare it a lie.

Should it surprise us that St John was able to preach so eloquently without words? I think not. If we think back to his conception, we realise that he began his life in this world as a sign – his mother Elizabeth was thought to be beyond the age of child-bearing and barren; but in answer to the prayers of his parents they were indeed blessed; and the news of this miraculous conceptions was as a sign to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she might trust the words of the Archangel Gabriel that she would indeed bear a Son and remain a virgin.

And as I draw to a close let us recall one other occasion when the Baptist preached God's truth without ever speaking a single word: on that occasion we generally refer to as the Visitation, when the Blessed Virgin Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth. When the two women meet - the older six months with child, the younger only days – a remarkable thing happens. As Mary greets her cousin, at once child within Elizabeth's womb leaps for joy and, filled with the Holy Spirit, she knows and declares that she is in the presence of the mother of her Lord.

This silent testimony from St John in the womb tells us several things. The first, and most obvious, is that Jesus is Lord and Mary is his Mother. But let us not forget something that is also of great importance that we learn from his testimony. Mary, as I said earlier, has at this point only been pregnant for a few days. We know this because St Luke tells us that immediately after the angel of the Lord had made his declaration to her and she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit that she arose and went with haste to visit her cousin. And that the as yet unborn St John leaped with joy within his mother's womb when the virgin who was with child came into his presence speaks very clearly of one important fact: from the very moment of his conception Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God had come among us. Even in that tiny state, at the very beginning of life, he was Lord, fully God and fully man.

The implications for this in the context of recent events in our society are, I think, obvious; and I will say no more than that. So as I end I will merely give thanks for all that John taught us, both in words and without them. And even as we think of how he helped prepare the way for the first coming of our Lord and Saviour, let us also think of how his example may help prepare us for the day when he will come in power and majesty to judge the living and the dead; a day on which I pray that all may be found worthy to enter into the glory where St John, and all the saints and angels dwell: in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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