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Posts Tagged ‘Saint John the Baptist’

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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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IMG_2229He Must Increase

Last Friday I sat myself down in the cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, CA, waiting to hear the umpteenth sermon on St. John the Baptist.  It was the feast of his nativity, and the occasion was the investiture of new members in the Order of Malta — aka, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta.  The “St. John” in this case happens to be “the Baptist,” and the Order is so-dedicated because of the location of its first hospice, built in the late 1080s next to the church of St. John in Jerusalem.

That was a fortunate choice of geography, because John turned out to be a pretty good patron for the Order.  But I already knew that, and lots more.  That’s why I eased into a comfortable spot in the pew, in hopes that I could indulge in a pleasant daydream as the bishop told of other things that I already knew.

IMG_2274He began with the observation that we celebrate the birthdays of John and Jesus exactly six months apart.  That I already knew, but I consoled myself with the thought that others in the room perhaps hadn’t been so informed.  He then observed that only John and Jesus have official vigils on the day before their nativity.  Again, that wasn’t news to me, and perhaps to a few others as well.  Then he cited John’s self-effacing words about Jesus:  “He must increase, and I must decrease.”  Since every member of Malta should know those words already, I guessed they’d be a surprise to no one in the room.

Then came one item I’d never considered before.  Centuries ago some liturgy committee had settled on June 25th as the feast of John’s nativity, specifically with this gospel passage in mind.  How did they make the connection, and what was the point?  Well, they didn’t choose the 25th because they’d checked the birth registry in the public records office in Jerusalem.  In a decision that was brilliant for its subtlety, they landed on June 25th for reasons that were both arbitrary and quite deliberate.  It just so  happens that the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere falls between June 20 and 22, and the winter solstice between December 20 and 22.

IMG_2243And what precisely does that have to do with the birth of John the Baptist?  Well, it’s quite simple.  The summer solstice is the longest day of the  year, and from that day forward for the next six months the days inexorably become shorter and darker.  They decrease.  Conversely, shortly after the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year — the days lengthen and brighten.  They increase.  So it is that the liturgical calendar takes advantage of the cycle of nature.  And just at the greatest moment of hope, John appeared on the scene.  But over time he diminished and gradually stepped into the shadows as he pointed to the coming of Christ.  Conversely, at the darkest moment Jesus came, but from that point on his figure increased brilliantly.  In short, John decreased while Jesus increased.  The seasons merely reinforce that lesson.

IMG_2267This little tidbit is not the only example of how the liturgical calendar uses nature as a reference point.  For better and for worse the lesson works well in the northern hemisphere and falls flat in the southern, but that was because people in the early church never quite anticipated the spread of Christianity so far south.  Aside from that, however, it’s meant to remind us that nature can reinforce the divine message.  God can and often does speak through nature;  just as the heavens are fully capable of proclaiming the glory of God.

The Bible too emphasizes the power of nature to speak of God.  Not by accident does the Book of Genesis open with the story of creation; and lest we forget, God only got around to creating Adam and Eve on the sixth day.  It’s a sobering thought to realize that God may have created us in the divine image, but for God we may have been something of a divine afterthought.  Our creation was not the icing on the divine cake but rather a nice ornament that completed the total picture.

IMG_2236It’s humbling for a monk to sit and listen to a sermon and realize that I’ve spent years missing the obvious.  To the bishop, then, I’m grateful that he let a little of his light dispel some of my ignorance.  And to myself I’m grateful that I hadn’t settled in too conformably into that pew.  Thankfully I stayed awake just long enough to catch a nugget of insight.  It’s a reminder too that I’ve not yet learned all there is to know.  There’s still lots of reasons for me to stay awake and listen, especially when someone has something important to say.

The last bit of wisdom that I take from this has to do with the light that shines in the darkness.  In my own ego-centric world it’s tempting to conclude that the light of the world emanates from me.  John the Baptist reminds me that it doesn’t.  Whether I’m happy about it or not matters little.  It’s simply true that I am not the light of the world, and someday the world is going to go on without me.

But John also reminds us all that our decrease does not mean our destruction.  Over the next six months the days will diminish and so will we.  During this time we will ever so gradually come to terms with the thought that we are not the center of creation.

Still, when all seems spent and empty, come December 25th we’ll discover that our lives are changed, not ended.  From that moment on you and I will further increase in the glow of the Incarnation.

IMG_2205Notes

+On June 14th and 15h I participated in the annual investiture of new members of the Order of Malta in the Western Association.  The vigil service took place at Mission Santa Clara, which sits on the campus of Santa Clara University.  The investiture service itself took place at the cathedral and basilica of Saint Joseph in San Jose.

+On 16 June I took part in the reunions at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  To get there on time I took the red-eye flight from San Francisco.  Each time I take that flight I vow that I will never do it again.

IMG_2226+On Sunday the 19th I attended a giant reception for two dear friends who celebrated fifty years of marriage.  The celebration took place at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul.

+The photos in today’s blog illustrate Reunion Weekend at Saint John’s.  Alumni returned to participate in classes offered by faculty members, and in general they simply enjoyed each other’s company and the beauty of the campus.  The weather held out nicely, but when we suddenly had a downpour the indoor beer tasting event became quite popular.  For whatever reason, there are a goodly number of alumni who have founded craft breweries, and several were on hand to introduce their work to classmates and friends.

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imageBe It Done Unto Us

“Be it done unto me according to thy word.”  So responded Mary to the angel when the latter brought news of the birth of a son to her.  To be honest, Mary’s response doesn’t sound very proactive, but all the same it’s important to recall that she did have a choice here.  She could have said “no” and gotten on with her life.  But she didn’t

Still, there is in Mary’s response a hint of resignation, and I can just imagine her confusion.  “Why me?”  Given that possibility, the gospel writer may have thought it prudent to delete the part of the story where she shrugged her shoulders, sighed, and wondered what was coming next.  Since the angel was short on details, perhaps Mary’s best course of action was to wonder about it all, go with the flow, and hope that something good might come of it.

There is a similar lack of clarity in the life of John the Baptist, the other great figure in the Advent story.  John’s message was never about himself, and he preached about someone he would not meet for quite some time.  In fact, he had no idea who the messiah might be, and all he could hope was that he’d know him when he saw him.

imageAppearances to the contrary, neither Mary nor John were passive doormats in this story.  Mary may have looked like a benign young woman and John the consummate number two in a movie that could have but one  star, but that was not the case.  They too were leading characters in the story of Advent, and they are fascinating in their own right.

In Luke 3, the gospel passage for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the crowds ask John the Baptist what they should do.  For life-long Jews this seems a curious question to pose.  If they didn’t know by now, then clearly someone had not done a good job of religious education.  But whether they were truly ignorant or merely testing John to see what he had to say, they set him up for a great sermon.

What’s curious about John’s response is the one thing he did not say.  He did not tell them to rush back to the temple to offer a sacrifice.  It’s not that he discouraged this, and I suspect he presumed they knew to do that anyway.  But John has a very specific course of action to recommend.  He encourages them to give to the poor, to be just in all  their dealings, and to live ethical lives.  Parenthetically he might have noted that worship in the temple was the work  of the entire community.  But this was the formula for an individual life lived well.

imageJesus carries forward this theme in his own preaching, and his ministry helps to explain the meaning of Advent.  Advent does not announce the birth of a messiah who comes to make people knuckle under to his will.  The messiah does not come to crush people or turn them into passive doormats or wall-flowers.  He comes instead to remind people of the gift of life they have from God.  And with that gift comes opportunity, as well as responsibility.

Mary allowed Jesus to take flesh within her, and John the Baptist pointed with his finger to the messiah.  Neither played second-fiddle to Jesus, because God gave to each an invitation and the grace to respond.  The same is true for us.  So the point of Advent is not to prepare to be casual onlookers as the messiah comes into our midst.  Rather, the point of Advent is to energize ourselves and live creatively.  When we choose to do so, it’s amazing to see what God can do through us.

Sometimes it may not be clear what God asks of us, but that’s okay.  The same was true for Mary.  She finally shrugged her shoulders and decided to go with the flow, in the hope that something good would come of it.  Something did.  And if we too pray that the same will be done unto us, who knows what surprises await us?

imageNotes

+On December 12th we celebrated with great joy the ordination of two of our monks.  Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud visited the Abbey and ordained Father Lew Grobe to the priesthood and Brother Isaiah Frederick to the diaconate.  Father Lew grew up in Minnetonka, MN, and after graduating from Saint John’s University he was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany.  He then worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at an abbey in Africa, after which he worked in Admissions at Saint John’s University.  Currently he works in the Abbey woodworking shop and also assists in formation of the younger monks.

Brother Isaiah was from Tucson, AZ, also attended Saint John’s University, and then worked for ten years for Price Waterhouse in Phoenix.  In my work for Saint John’s I had the chance to visit him several times in Phoenix, and I take full credit for not scaring him away from life in the monastery.

+On December 13th Bishop Kettler returned to Saint John’s, where he and Abbot John celebrated Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Present were members of the Latino community from central Minnesota.

image+The weather impacted my life in very different ways during the past week.  Earlier in the week I was out for a walk and got caught in a big rainstorm.  I was thoroughly soaked, but it was fun nonetheless.  I’d not done such a thing since childhood.  But that satisfies that need for a few more years.  Later in the week I was scheduled to drive from northern California to Reno, NV, to attend a reception for alumni of Saint John’s.  Unfortunately, upwards of three feet of snow in the Donner Pass kept me grounded, and I was not about to brave the elements.  I was sorry to miss the event, however, because it featured the work of one of my former students.  Colin Robertson is now director of programs at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, and he helped to curate a major exhibition on the history and art of Lake Tahoe.  He also contributed to the beautiful exhibit catalog published by Rizzoli’s.  He was an excellent host that evening, and it is gratifying to know that a student has gone on to live a wonderfully creative life.

+The rather faded photos in today’s post are medieval frescos at Subiaco Abbey, located just outside of Rome.  It was where Saint Benedict began his monastic life as a hermit.

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Icon of Saint John the Baptist, Abbey church

Writing the Job Description for Your Life

The eighth grade was without a doubt the apex of my athletic career. For seven years I was an also-ran on the track team, though I always finished respectably. But in those days there were no trophies or limosines for fifth-place finishers (known at the time collectively as the losers.) Then, in the summer after seventh grade, the keys to fame and fortune came at last. That summer I had a spurt of growth that left me tall and skinny and fleet-of-foot. But even better, the guy who had won everything for seven years moved to another city. That fall I shocked his heir-apparent and ran away with the ribbons for everything except the shot put. It was just too heavy.

In retrospect I realize that celebrity came too soon. Today I would be busy selecting a site for my own hall of fame and library. And I would fret over how many publicists would be enough. Back then no one knew we were due all that adulation.

Co-cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Malta

For some time David Brooks has been the writer I idolize, and I could listen to him talk about anything, all day long. Lately he’s commented on the lack of humility in our society, with the observation that people will now do stuff that would have mortified them fifty years ago. He includes, as an example, ceo salaries at $75 million per year.  But that scarcely exhausts the inventory.

Recently he cited a survey of young people, most of whom said they would prefer to be Justin Bieber’s agent rather than the president of Harvard. For my part I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they just don’t know what a president of a Harvard is. But Brooks was less forgiving. For him their choice was a sign of the times. Our popular culture sets a higher store on fame than on service to others. Sadly, for us it really is all about us.

On the second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist enters the scene, and he preaches the need for repentance and baptism. Given his clothing and diet, he’d never have a prayer of getting into GQ  or Cosmopolitan. But on one key ingredient he is even more hopelessly out of sync with the 21st century. After all, who would want a job description that reads: “he must increase, while I must decrease”?

The gospels cast John as the quintessential number two man. It’s not about him, because he literally points to someone else. He is the epitome of humility — the quality whose absence in our culture Brooks so laments. But John’s supporting role in the story doesn’t degrade him. In fact, his character is all the more noble since his life points to something of transcendent value. It wasn’t all about him, because it was all about the One who had given him life in the first place.

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

In his Rule Saint Benedict describes the degrees of humility, and that kind of language makes many cringe in mock horror. But Benedict has no desire to reduce the monk to worthlessness. Quite the contrary, if the monk is to see Christ in others, he also needs to see Christ in himself. He, like every seeker of Christ, is called to be a sacred person.

Benedict’s degrees of humility are a form of reality therapy, from which we learn a great deal. The monk has not brought himself into being. He did not bestow on himself a range of talents. His supreme importance is not self-derived. The humility to which both Benedict and David Brooks point is a grounding in the soil from which we all spring and to which we shall return. Humility is a reminder of the Source in whom we live and move and have our being.

To what do we want our lives to point? That’s the question we all answer with our actions. For my part I’m glad there is no shrine to my eighth-grade athletic prowess. It was a formative moment in my life, but it’s not who I am today. Fixating on one such episode strikes me as incredibly unhealthy. Everyone should celebrate such rites of passage, but then we need to move on to the next task. If we stop too long to extoll our own greatness, we risk stalling out. We become blind to what God still has in mind for us.

What then will be the job description we write for oursleves? Am I here solely to win some races in the eighth grade? To celebrate the cult of Justin Bieber? To make some impact on somebody’s life? To show the goodness of the God who gives us life?

Put that way, the options are more stark. At its fullest, life is not about me. Like John the Baptist, life is more about me and God and all the others in whom God dwells.

Practice for the Christmas concert: The Great Hall

John the Baptist

Since the early Church Saint John the Baptist has been a favorite patron, and as “a voice crying in the wilderness” he can be especially appropriate for our own day. More particular to me, he is patron of Saint John’s Abbey, as well as of our University and Prep School.  For the first few years John the Baptist literally was a voice crying in the wilderness of Collegeville, since the early monks had primarily birds, squirrels and deer as their neighbors.  He is also the patron of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta, in which I serve as a chaplain.  For the sake of small envelopes, it is often abbreviated as The Order of Malta.  I have included two photos of the Order’s former headquarters church in Malta, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.  While the exterior of the church blends easily into the landscape of Malta, the interior is resplendent with the magnificent tombs of past members of the Order.

Because of his popularity, John the Baptist naturally shows up as a favored subject for artists, and at Saint John’s we have several renditions of him. At the top of this post is an icon which is enthroned in the Abbey church, below the lecturn. In it John points to Christ, in the upper left corner of the panel. The icon was painted by Aidan Hart, who did significant work in The Saint John’s Bible.

John the Baptist also figures in a very weathered statue that now sits behind the monastery. At first glance this terra cotta representation looks rather sad and depressed, with downcast eyes. It could be due to the flower bed at his feet, which is closed for the winter. In fact, however, he looks downward because he once greeted all guests arriving at the main entrance of the Abbey, and he did it from four floors up. Sometime around 1894 he was perched up on a ledge on the tower of the monastery, and from there he reigned supreme until 1954. In that year the Breuer wing of the monastery was built, and all of a sudden he looked out over a huge expanse of roof. Preaching to the roof did not suit him, or us, and he was relocated to the garden, where he now presides over the flowers — and the occasonal photographer. In the picture below you can identify the ledge on which the statue stood, just outside of an arched window.

The Calendar

On December 1st I was the presiding celebrant at the Abbey Mass, and I have enclosed in Presentations my reflection: Is God our Father, or is He Santa Claus? This was my first experience with the new Roman Missal, which had entered the scene on the previous Sunday. At the Abbey we had spent considerable time and work in preparation for it, and we’d begun to use the new sung propers two months ago. While the changes in wording are not radical, it took some basic preparation that had not been necessary for me for many years. Needless to say, I was nervous and careful, as if it were my first Mass all over again. But it turned out well.

On December 2nd the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict gave their annual Christmas concert in the Great Hall at Saint John’s. The next evening they gave the same concert at the massive Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis. It was the 25th anniversary of that concert, and as always the massed choirs sang to a very full church.

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