The Political Theology of John the Baptist

[Posted on Facebook yesterday.]

Happy feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist! It's not the most common happening to celebrate back-to-back solemnities, but with the Sacred Heart yesterday, these are great days of grace.

It seems to me that the Church wishes to emphasize the political theology, as it were, of John the Baptist's mission. In the entrance antiphon and collect for Mass today, as well as in one of the antiphons of lauds, is repeated the fact that John is sent from God "to prepare a people/nation fit for the Lord."

We have the call of Jeremiah in the first reading from matins, in which the Lord says,

"See, I place My words in your mouth! This day I set you over nations and over kingdoms, to root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant. But do you gird up your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them; for it is I this day Who have made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land: against Judah's kings and princes, against its priests and people. They will fight against you, but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."

The prophet, filled with the Spirit, constitutes the true polity, over against the injustice of human power, the spirit of self-serving ("a fortified city...against Judah's kings and princes"). This spirit is also to be found in any one of us who would prop up self by scapegoating others, whether that be demonization of the "other" by the right, the left, or the middle.

There is also the fact that the second reading emphasizes the Davidic context of John, which isn't the most obvious thing. It is an excerpt from the address given by Saint Paul in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (his first recorded oration), itself presenting a political theology, one of comprehensive power:

"God raised up David as King; of him God testified, 'I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out My every wish.' From this man's descendants God, according to His promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus. John heralded His coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel; and as John was completing his course, he would say: 'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, One is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of His feet.'" (Acts 13:22-25)

Paired with the corresponding speech in the first half of the Petrine/Pauline diptych that is the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Peter's Pentecostal address, in which David is also featured, we have a dual vision of the Kingdom of the resurrected Christ. On the one hand, this Kingdom is a mighty work of the Spirit bringing history and nature, with all of the promises of God encoded therein, to inner, and supernatural, fulfillment. In this light, it is not reducible to political configurations. On the other hand, this Kingdom does in fact have a political history, and therefore places all politics under its measure.

The human person and the societies made up of human persons are not reducible to the state and its arrogant power, whether wielded by technocratic elites of right or left. The state ought to serve the natural end of man, which is intrinsically open to the ultimate end of man in the New Jerusalem. That natural end is gentle virtue, contemplative and responsible, open to supernatural direction by the Holy Spirit, lived out in a body politic of reconciling love.

The gentleness is essential. This is the Kingdom of the Sacred Heart after all.

The preparation of the Kingdom was John's whole life. He was a pure blade of flame in the service of divine love. His baptism of repentance was not performed for the sake of a further self-enclosure of "the elect," of "Israel." His repentance was true repentance, which burns for a universal Kingdom. It says, "LORD, take from me all self-will. Leave me with only the desire to serve Your mission, to form a people who can actually begin to love. But first, I must begin to love. I must decrease; You must increase."

Let's end with the first reading from Mass today, a memory of Isaiah's commission as a prophet, from chapter 49:

"Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the LORD, my recompense is with my God. For now the LORD has spoken, Who formed me as His servant from the womb, that Jacob may be brought back to Him and Israel gathered to Him; and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength! It is too little, He says, for you to be My servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that My salvation may reach to the ends of the earth."