the tender compassion of our God

Jun 23, 2013

My paternal grandfather knew his way around the night sky. In New Zealand, the Southern Cross is the most sought-after constellation. I remember my grandfather showing me this cross, and also pointing out the “Pointers”, the two stars that indicate the Southern Cross.

Many artistic representations of John the Baptist show him as a ‘pointer’. He is pointing away from himself and towards Jesus. This popular image (as in this section of Matthias Grunewald’s painting ca. 1480-1528), points us to the heart of the purpose of the life of John the Baptist.

John the Baptiser is the patron of our Catholic diocese of Christchurch. It is a happy coincidence that we can, with all Catholics around the world, today celebrate this feast of his birth.

Here in Chicago as I write it is Sunday evening and I have just come from the vigil Mass for the feast. Tomorrow the Mass and the Prayer of the Church will be from the liturgies for the Feast of John the Baptist.

We encounter the adult John the Baptist, preaching and baptizing in the region of Galilee. Andrew and John were two of his followers. One day, the Baptist sees and recognises his cousin Jesus. He turns to John and Andrew and announces. “Behold: there is the Lamb of God.” 

The image of the artist captures this moment with the pointing finger. ‘No, not me! I am not the one to follow’ (indicates John). ‘All my preaching has been about this man, the Messiah. There he is. Go and follow him’.

They do as John indicates and go to Jesus. “What do you want?” Jesus asks them. “Where do you live?” they ask. “Come and see!” he replies. At this moment they went with him and they found everything they had been looking for.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when John and Andrew got home that night. 

We know that they were changed dramatically. This is clear since when Andrew got back home he announced to his brother Simon Peter: “We have found the Messiah.” The next day they take Simon Peter to meet Jesus, and Jesus greets him with a remarkable proclamation: “You are Simon, son of John, you will be called Cephas (ie Peter or rock”)

From this moment of first encounter with Jesus, their lives were dramatically different. 

Until now these first disciples had lived the kind of life that our contemporary society would call ‘normal’. There were ups and downs, good days and bad days, successes and failures. ‘Life’ (as they had known it) was a process of trying to grasp at whatever offered happiness. Then, all over again they would realise that this ‘hope’ was nothing more than an illusory promise. 

These ‘desert’ travellers were longing for refreshing waters. They catch sight of an oasis. They spend time, energy and resources to reach this oasis, only to find a mirage.

And then there are the times when we grasp the promising offering. We eat our fill and even gorge on the apparent nourishment, only to discover that we are left feeling even more lonely and isolated than before.

But for John, Andrew and Simon, life had now changed. Sure they still had the good days and the bad. But instead of an aimless wandering from one attraction to the next, their new life had one single purpose. Instead of living as lonely drifters, they were now the intimate friends of Jesus who is the Messiah. 

This new life life provided both a meaning and context capable of answering any “what” or “how” or “why” questions. They were now oriented towards the one who was capable of satisfying every human desire both now and eternally.

There are many key messages that we can take from the life and witness of John the Baptist. Each of these points is radically different from the predominant messages of our western contemporary society:

Whereas the culture of our time encourages people to look after themselves, and to seek their own prestige and success, John the Baptist points away from himself, and clearly indicates the centrality of the person of Jesus. 

He was, above all else, the first witness to Jesus. Already he had his own support group – perhaps even a bit of a fan club. But the moment he recognised the presence of Jesus, he directed his own followers away from himself, and towards Jesus.

John was a formidable presence since he was unafraid of those who might oppose the truth. As Pope Benedict reminds us, he was prepared to denounce transgressions even when this meant paying the price of his life. He was committed to Truth.

We find our own health and happiness in this present life (and eternally) when we let go of self-concern, and look to Jesus. 

In the tender compassion of his divine gaze towards us we find all that we seek. We begin to use our words and actions to point to Jesus, and we are filled with courage to speak out on behalf of those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

Take a moment to pray with this Canticle from the daily Morning Prayer of the Prayer of the Church. This was the proclamation of Zechariah on the occasion of the birth of his son, John the Baptist:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty saviour,
born of the house of his servant David.

Through his holy prophets he promised of old
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore 

to our father Abraham;
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight 
all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called 

the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord 

to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness 
and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
(Luke 1:68-79)


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