Posts Tagged ‘Saint Joseph Cathedral San Jose’

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.


+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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