Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 4, “The Forerunner”

Dear old friend,*

I wonder how seriously most of us take the people of the Bible. It’s easy to dismiss Old Testament figures as mythic men and women who symbolize something or other. Whether they really lived or not hardly matters, does it? “David” was the musical shepherd who overcame a ferocious giant with pluck and resourcefulness. “Lot’s wife” reminds me to look forward, not in the rear-view mirror. All of those old Jews make good fodder for moralistic Christian sermons.

The characters in the New Testament, closer to Jesus and to our time, logically should be realer, more human and historical to us—like FDR, Abe Lincoln, or Queen Elizabeth I, just farther back in historical time. But partly thanks to those sermons we heard as kids and the Sunday school classes we attended while kicking and dragging our feet, partly too because we have let the distant past fade into a misty never-never land that hardly matters—I suspect that, if they’re like me, most people seldom look at a figure like John the Baptist and think,

“He really lived? What was that like?! Knowing somehow (how?) that your vocation is to announce the coming of the Lord, and baptizing Him—then losing some of your best disciples (Andrew, John) to Him, then being thrown into a dungeon and having your head cut off—and all without this so-called Messiah intervening to help you?! That must have been— You mean a human being really went through all that?”

The fog descends, John the Precursor, the Forerunner, becomes but a symbol. Of something or other.

What’s beautiful and deeply touching to me about The Lord, and I especially start to feel it here in this fourth chapter, is how seriously Guardini takes a person—not a “character” but a man—like John the Baptist. If with the Incarnation God entered history, then John is one of the human beings who directly felt the force of this intervention. John, Guardini writes, is “the last of the line” of Old Testament prophets, “but so close to the stupendous event that others have indicated that he actually brushes it” [my emphasis].

Jesus and John brushed up against each other, rubbed elbows, flesh to flesh!

There are many questions still asked about John, and Guardini addresses several. His technique is to move seamlessly from Gospel to Gospel in order to tell the complete story that no single Gospel tells. In one paragraph, he quotes John 3, Matthew 9, and Luke 11 in quick succession to provide a short narrative of the interactions between John, his disciples, and Jesus in the interval between the baptism and John’s imprisonment. John’s followers wonder why everyone is now flocking to the man from Nazareth; they challenge Jesus about his followers not fasting; and when Jesus’s disciples beg him to teach them to pray the way John is teaching those close to him, the result is—the Lord’s Prayer! “Back and forth between them run hidden paths of sharpened attention, suspicion, and jealousy,” writes Guardini.

Then John is jailed, and before the daughter of Herodias asks Herod to have John beheaded, John passes long, dark hours alone in the dungeon. He sends a messenger to ask Jesus if he really is the one “who is to come.” What is going in John’s heart? Has he lost faith?

Guardini reminds us that, though “we imagine the illumination of a prophet as a fixed thing, as though . . . he stood fast for all time, . . . in reality even a prophet’s life is shaken by all storms and saddled with all weaknesses.” In other words, this prophet was a man.

But why then Jesus’s response? He instructs the messenger, “Go and report to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise, the poor have the gospel preached to them.

“And blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.”

Guardini contemplates this last statement and the questions it has evoked from commentators. Is Jesus rebuking John for being scandalized? To answer this question, Guardini looks “into the heart of the prophet.” And what the author of The Lord sees when he looks—and I won’t spoil it for you my old friend—is revealed in the final triumphant line of this beautiful chapter.

In the margin at the end, I wrote simply, as I might have written the word 40 years ago over Herman Melville or Ken Kesey, when we were in school together, I wrote—“WOW!”

Tomorrow, chapter 5, “Baptism and Temptation”

Be well, my friend,

This series of letters continues here with chapter 5.

* This post continues a chapter-by-chapter series on The Lord by Romano Guardini, in the form of letters to an Episcopalian friend. Scroll back through older posts to see previous letters about earlier chapters.

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