04 Conception of John the Baptist - Sept 23, 2007

Galatians 4:22-31 (Forerunner)

Luke 1:5-25 (Forerunner)

This morning, the Church commemorates the conception of St John the Baptist. As the Church enjoins us to do in the “Ikos” for this feast, “Let us open the holy Gospel which the wondrous St Luke wrote for us: let us contemplate the honorable and radiant conception of John the Forerunner.”

The Church likens John to an angel who came forth from the grief of a barren woman. He is the last of all the prophets. There is no prophet after him. He is the greatest of the prophets because he bore witness to Jesus as the One whom all the prophets before had proclaimed in hidden signs that he would come, that he would suffer and die on the Cross for the life of the world. John the Forerunner is the last and the greatest of all the prophets, because he bore witness to Jesus as the Son of God come in the flesh and because he baptized him in the Jordan. John bore witness to Jesus even when he was still in Elizabeth’s womb. St Luke records that when the Blessed Virgin Mary had conceived in her womb the Son of God, and came to visit Elizabeth while John was still in her womb, that the babe leaped for joy within her as soon as the Blessed Virgin Mary greeted Elizabeth. Then, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and greeted Mary as the “Mother of my Lord.”

Years later, when John was baptizing in the Jordan, and all the people were coming to him, he said to them: “I indeed baptize you with water, but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” According to the testimony of St John the Evangelist, John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to his disciples as: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And when he baptized him, he testified that this Jesus was the Son of God because on him he saw the Holy Spirit descending and remaining.[1]

John’s testimony that Jesus is the Son of God explains, for one thing, why the Church has always addressed the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God. It is a confession of faith that the one born of her is not an ordinary man granted a special relationship with God, not even an ordinary man joined to God the Son in some kind of very tight conjunction, but the Son of God incarnate. The Virgin is therefore Theotokos: Mother of God. The testimony of St John that this man Jesus is the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and the Church’s confession of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos are proclamations that God himself is with us. He is called, Immanuel, a Hebrew name that means, “God is with us.” Jesus is the very Word that the Father spoke to bring creation from nonbeing into being, who has become flesh and dwelt among us.

Come in the flesh, God the Word who before was by nature unapproachable, has now become approachable to us, not only in our life but also in our death; for, he has shared with us not only in our flesh and blood but also in our death, so that by his death, as St Paul says, he might destroy the devil who held the power of death and so release us who through fear of death live our whole life in the shadow of death and in bondage to the fear of death.[2]

The Virgin Theotokos gives to God the Word the substance of our flesh. He wraps it round himself as a garment. The theological imagery is saying that within our own human nature we can find God. How? The Virgin Theotokos is called the gate facing the east,[3] the gate through which none may pass, save our God alone,[4] the bridge of life, through whom mortal men, fallen into hell, find their way up again.[5] Inasmuch as we are of the same nature as our Mother, the Theotokos, I believe this imagery can be taken to signify by what means we discover our nature to be the gate that opens onto the east – in other words, that opens onto the resurrection of Christ God – how we can discover our nature to be the bridge of life by which we cross over the abyss of death and into the Kingdom of Heaven. It is through the way of obedience to God, as shown to us in our Mother, the Blessed Lady Theotokos: “Be it done to me according to thy word,” she said to the Archangel Gabriel when he came to her announcing the Good News that she would become the Mother of God. It is through obedience, that we discover our own nature to be a gate that opens onto the East, the Gate through which God alone may pass, the bridge that carries us to Christ God, who is our life.

In both his divinity that he shares with the Father and in his humanity that he shares with us, Christ was obedient to the Father, even to the point of death on the Cross. It is therefore through obedience to the Father that Christ himself became flesh like us and subjected himself to death, like us. It is therefore through obedience to God that we discover our inherent likeness to Christ. We were created in the image and likeness of God. It is through obedience that the image of God in which we were made realizes its perfection so that we become like God. And it is in becoming like God through obedience that we discover our nature as itself a gate that opens onto God, a bridge that crosses over into the Kingdom of Heaven.

You can see that our contemplation of the “honorable and radiant conception of John the Forerunner,” has led us to contemplate Jesus and his holy Mother as Theotokos. Even to those who contemplate his honorable and radiant conception, John bears witness to the Savior. St John’s message was that of the prophets, especially the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[6] In other words, we should expect that in contemplating the conception of John, we will be led also to see how we practice that obedience by which we, too, can see the salvation of God.

John was conceived, as was also the Theotokos, of a barren mother. His conception, as was that of the Theotokos, was of the Holy Spirit. We learn the theological significance of the barrenness of Elizabeth and Anna (the mothers of John and the Theotokos) from the hymns of the feasts we have just celebrated.

In the feast of the Theotokos’ nativity, the Church sings that when Joachim and Anna were set free from their barrenness at the conception of their daughter, the Theotokos, Adam and Eve were set from corruption and death.[7] The barrenness of Elizabeth and Anna is the corruption and death to which all of mankind is in bondage. As St Paul writes in his epistle to the Ephesians that we’ve been reading this week: “We were dead in our trespasses.”[8] In the feast of the Cross, the Church took us back to the Garden of Eden. It was the wood of the tree of good and evil, i.e. the serpent’s tree, that stripped me bare because I played the thief when I transgressed God’s command and stole its fruit[9] - i.e., when I was disobedient to God.

We are barren; we are in bondage to corruption because we of our disobedience to God. Elizabeth and Anna, because they were barren, were, in the biblical view, as good as dead, like we are. But they were obedient to God and in their obedience, Anna became the mother of the Theotokos who overthrew the curse of Adam and Eve, corruption and death, and gave birth to God; and Elizabeth became the mother of John the Baptist, the Forerunner who “announces the King born of a Virgin.”

The baptismal font is the likeness of the virginal womb of the Theotokos. In the virginal womb of the baptismal font, children of Adam and Eve, who are dead in their trespasses because of disobedience, are united to Christ, the Son of the Virgin, in the likeness of his death, and born from above in the likeness of his resurrection as children of God, children born of a Virgin Mother, the Church, the Bride of God.

John the Baptist is the icon par excellence of the Church in her masculine, kerygmatic character. In her preaching and teaching, the Church shows us the “way of the Lord,” proclaimed by John the Forerunner; and she shows us how to prepare it, how to make straight the paths of the Lord so that all flesh may see the salvation of God and experience our human nature as the gate that opens onto the East, that is, to the resurrection of Christ our God. It is the way of obedience. Through obedience, we are born from out of the barrenness of corruption and death to be like our Mother, the Theotokos, birth givers of God in the virtues of Christ that are born in our hearts through our union with him on his Cross and in his holy resurrection. Through obedience, we become like John the Baptist; in our love of the Savior, we gladly decrease that he might increase in our witness to him as the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and grants joy to the whole universe.

From contemplating the honorable and radiant conception of John the Forerunner, two lessons come to me.

The Church, like the Virgin Theotokos, has been born from the barrenness of our human nature as the Mother of God. Born in the world, we are children of death. Born of the Church in our baptism, we have become children of life, born of a Virgin Mother, the Church, in a way surpassing nature. We have been born from above as children of God. The life we live in the Church is not the life of this world. It is the life of God. Indeed, it is the life of the Holy Spirit, the original life of creation, for it is the life by which Adam became a living soul; the life we were meant to live. 

As the life of the Holy Spirit, it is the life of obedience, for it is the life of Christ God who was obedient to the Father and became flesh and dwelt among us to become one with us even to the point of sharing in our death by his death on the Cross. It is the life of Elizabeth and Anna, of John and the Theotokos, and of all the saints. This is to say that when we submit ourselves to the teachings of the Church and are obedient to the commandments of the Lord that she gives to us, we are submitting to the life of the Holy Spirit. We are walking in the light as he is in the light. On this path of obedience to the commandments of Christ we now take up our Cross and make our way to the cave of Bethlehem and to the waters of the Jordan and into the holy Resurrection of Christ. Through obedience in love to the Savior, we discover the spiritual reality of the Church’s feasts as moments of time that have been taken up into the Incarnation of Christ our God to be transformed into gates that open our everyday lives onto the East, through which God comes to us from the light of his holy Resurrection granting us the joy and the life of his Holy Spirit in the sweetness of his presence among us. In his name as Immanuel he illumines the darkness of our ignorance of God; and we see in the light of his Cross the nobility of our divine destiny to become partakers of his divine nature. Through obedience to his commandments, we enter into his death by which he has destroyed death and made straight for us the way that opens onto Paradise, the Garden of Eden, the Cave of Bethlehem, that we may come to worship him with the shepherds and the Wise Men and rejoice in his Mother, the Theotokos, with all of creation.

[1] Jn 1:29-34

[2] Cf FM 158 and Heb 2:14

[3] FM 169

[4] FM 113

[5] FM 111

[6] Cf. Lk 3:4-6

[7] FM 119

[8] Eph 2:1 & 5

[9] FM 146 & 134