Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

The Nativity of John the Baptist

This will be a long, technical post that you can skip if religious matters don’t interest you. It is aimed at my colleagues who enjoy comparing points of religion.

john_baptist_mosaic.jpg

This week, we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John, known as The Baptist. There were several scriptural readings (see below which is from the online Lectionary on my blogroll)

We had a reading I hadn’t heard before:

An account of the mercy of thy Lord bestowed upon his servant Zachariah, when he called upon his lord in low tones, praying: My Lord, my very bones have become feeble and my head has turned hoary with age, but never have my supplications to Thee, Oh Lord, remained unfruitful. I am apprehensive of the behavior of my relations after my death, and my wife is barren. I beg Thee, therefore, do Thou bestow upon me from Thyself a successor to be my heir and to be the heir of the blessings of the House of Jacob; and to make him one who should be pleasing in Thy sight, O Lord . . . .

(it tells of Johns conception and birth)

We commanded Yahya (John): Hold fast the Book; and we bestowed upon him wisdom while he was still young, as a token of tenderness from Ourself and to purify him. He grew up righteous, and was dutiful towards his parents and was not haughty or rebellious. Peace was on him on the day of his birth, and on the day of his death, and peace will be on him on the day he will be raised up to life again.

As I am hearing this reading, I am thinking “I am pretty familiar with our scriptures, and while it sounds familiar, I don’t think I have ever heard this reading before,” and I thought maybe it was from one of the less often read books that not all churches agree is part of the scripture.

And then – the reader said “This reading on John is from the Qu’ran.”

I was amazed. First – I had no idea John was mentioned in the Qu’ran. I know Jesus is in the Qu’ran, and my Saudi women friends told me Jesus’ name is in there more than the name of the Prophet Mohammed. (Peace be upon all the prophets!) But I had no idea John was in the Qu’ran, Chapter 19, which is called the book of Maryam, and also tells of the life and ministry of Jesus.

Second – I’ve never heard the Qu’ran read in a Christian church service before, but why not? It added, not subtracted, from our understanding of John. I thought it was pretty cool.

Here is what our Lectionary has to say about John the Baptist:

THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

(24 JUNE NT)

Our principal sources of information about John the Baptist are
(1) references to his birth in the first chapter of Luke,
(2) references to his preaching and his martyrdom in the Gospels, with a few references in Acts, and
(3) references in Josephus to his preaching and martyrdom, references which are consistent with the New Testament ones, but sufficiently different in the details to make direct borrowing unlikely.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus (who wrote after 70 AD), John the Baptist was a Jewish preacher in the time of Pontius Pilate (AD 26-36). He called the people to repentance and to a renewal of their covenant relation with God. He was imprisoned and eventually put to death by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born) for denouncing Herod’s marriage to Herodias, the wife of his still-living brother Philip. In order to marry Herodias, Herod divorced his first wife, the daughter of King Aretas of Damascus, who subsequently made war on Herod, a war which, Josephus tells us, was regarded by devout Jews as a punishment for Herod’s murder of the prophet John.

In the Book of Acts, we find sermons about Jesus which mention His Baptism by John as the beginning of His public ministry (see Acts 10:37; 11:16; 13:24). We also find accounts (see Acts 18:24; 19:3) of devout men in Greece who had received the baptism of John, and who gladly received the full message of the Gospel of Christ when it was told them.

Luke begins his Gospel by describing an aged, devout, childless couple, the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. As Zechariah is serving in the Temple, he sees the angel Gabriel, who tells him that he and his wife will have a son who will be a great prophet, and will go before the Lord “like Elijah.” (The Jewish tradition had been that Elijah would herald the coming of the Messiah = Christ = Annointed = Chosen of God.) Zechariah went home, and his wife conceived. About six months later, Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary, a kinswoman of Elizabeth, and told her that she was about to bear a son who would be called Son of the Most High, a king whose kingdom would never end. Thus Elizabeth gave birth to John, and Mary gave birth six months later to Jesus.

After describing the birth of John, Luke says that he grew, and “was in the wilderness until the day of his showing to Israel.” The people of the Qumran settlement, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, sometime use the term “living in the wilderness” to refer to residing in their community at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Accordingly, it has been suggested that John spent some of his early years being educated at Qumran.

All of the gospels tell us that John preached and baptized beside the Jordan river, in the wilderness of Judea. He called on his hearers to repent of their sins, be baptized, amend their lives, and prepare for the coming of the Kingship of God. He spoke of one greater than himself who was to come after. Jesus came to be baptized, and John told some of his disciples, “This is the man I spoke of.” After His baptism by John, Jesus began to preach, and attracted many followers. In fact, many who had been followers of John left him to follow Jesus. Some of John’s followers resented this, but he told them: “This is as it should be. My mission is to proclaim the Christ. The groomsman, the bridegroom’s friend, who makes the wedding arrangements for the bridegroom, is not jealous of the bridegroom. No more am I of Jesus. He must increase, and I must decrease.” (John 3:22-30)

John continued to preach, reproving sin and calling on everyone to repent. King Herod Antipas had divorced his wife and taken Herodias, the wife of his (still living) brother Philip. John rebuked him for this, and Herod, under pressure from Herodias, had John arrested, and eventually beheaded. He is remembered on some calendars on the supposed anniversary of his beheading, 29 August.

When John had been in prison for a while, he sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask, “Are you he that is to come, or is there another?” (Matthew 11:2-14) One way of understanding the question is as follows: “It was revealed to me that you are Israel’s promised deliverer, and when I heard this, I rejoiced. I expected you to drive out Herod and the Romans, and rebuild the kindom of David. But here I sit in prison, and there is no deliverance in sight? Perhaps I am ahead of schedule, and you are going to throw out the Romans next year. Perhaps I have misunderstood, and you have a different mission, and the Romans bit will be done by someone else. Please let me know what is happening.”
Jesus replied by telling the messengers, “Go back to John, and tell him what you have seen, the miracles of healing and other miracles, and say, ‘Blessed is he who does not lose faith in me.'” He then told the crowds: “John is a prophet and more than a prophet. He is the one spoken of in Malachi 3:1, the messenger who comes to prepare the way of the LORD. No man born of woman is greater than John, but the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John.”

This has commonly been understood to mean that John represents the climax of the long tradition of Jewish prophets looking forward to the promised deliverance, but that the deliverance itself is a greater thing. John is the climax of the Law. He lives in the wilderness, a life with no frills where food and clothing are concerned. He has renounced the joys of family life, and dedicated himself completely to him mission of preaching, of calling people to an observance of the law, to ordinary standards of virtue. In terms of natural goodness, no one is better than John. But he represents Law, not Grace. Among men born of woman, among the once-born, he has no superior. But anyone who has been born anew in the kingdom of God has something better than what John symbolizes. (Note that to say that John symbolizes something short of the Kingdom is not to say that John is himself excluded from the Kingdom.)

Traditionally, the Birth of Jesus is celebrated on 25 December. That means that the Birth of John is celebrated six months earlier on 24 June. The appearance of Gabriel to Mary, being assumed to be nine months before the birth of Jesus, is celebrated on 25 March and called the Annunciation, and the appearance of Gabriel to Zechariah in the Temple is celebrated by the East Orthodox on 23 September. At least for Christians in the Northern Hamisphere, these dates embody a rich symbolism. (NOTE: Listmembers living in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, southern South America, or elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, press your delete keys NOW!) John is the last voice of the Old Covenant, the close of the Age of Law. Jesus is the first voice of the New Covenant, the beginning of the Age of Grace. Accordingly, John is born to an elderly, barren woman, born when it is really too late for her to be having a child, while Jesus is born to a young virgin, born when it is really too early for her to be having a child. John is announced (and conceived) at the autumnal equinox, when the leaves are dying and falling from the trees. Jesus is announced (and conceived) at the vernal equinox, when the green buds are bursting forth on the trees and there are signs of new life everywhere. John is born when the days are longest, and from his birth on they grow steadily shorter. Jesus is born when the days are shortest, and from his birth on they grow steadily longer. John speaks truly when he says of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

(Of course, it is to be noted that none of this symbolism proves anything, since the Scriptures do not tell us that Jesus was born on 25 December. The symbolism of the dates is used by Christians, not as evidence, but as material for the devout imagination.)

FIRST LESSON: Isaiah 40:1-11
(Isaiah speaks of someone who will cry out, “Prepare the way of the LORD.”)

PSALM 85
(The long exile is over, God has retored his people, mercy and truth are reconciled.)

SECOND LESSON: Acts 13:14b-26
(Paul preaches about Christ, and how the prophets, including John the Baptist, all pointed forward to him.)

THE HOLY GOSPEL: Luke 1:57-80
(The birth of John the Baptist; his father Zechariah’s song of praise.)

by James Kiefer

June 25, 2007 - Posted by | Blogroll, Christmas, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Experiment, Kuwait, Locard Exchange Principal, Random Musings, Relationships, Spiritual

10 Comments »

  1. That was a detailed, enjoyable account of St. John The Baptist’s life and significance in Christianity. πŸ™‚

    To answer your question, St. John the Baptist is indeed recognized in the Qura’an (and Islam) as the prophet Yahya. His burial place is inside the Ummayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria and pilgrims, both Christians & Muslims, visit his grave regularly.

    There are a lot of cross-referencing between the Gospels & the Qura’an with minute differences here and there; more evidence of the integration of the three religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

    Comment by kinano | June 25, 2007 | Reply

  2. James. I think that you and your colleagues might find my site (jofj.org) interesting. I tell the story of the Journey of Jesus from a chronological and geographical perspective. DAB

    Comment by dab | June 25, 2007 | Reply

  3. Kinan, I have visited that tomb! I am so embarrassed, I totally forgot. In the middle of one of the finest souks in the entire Middle East! And where Paul stayed, near the Street Called Straight, isn’t it?

    Sometimes I write these posts barely believing anyone will read them, but because they are interesting to me, and I want to remember them. I can’t tell you what a cool thing it was for me to know someone had read it.

    DAB – very cool site, with all the background to the stories, and the maps and the magnifier, too. Thanks for coming by and telling us about it Journey of Jesus.

    Comment by intlxpatr | June 25, 2007 | Reply

  4. I can always use a little lesson in historical biblical issues, sis. Thanks, this was VERY interesting.

    Comment by sparkleplenty | June 25, 2007 | Reply

  5. So you have visited the Ummayyad Mosque? Pretty fascinating, isn’t it?

    And yes, you’re absolutely right! It is located at the end of the Hamidiyyah Souk one of the most beautiful spots in old Damascus. The Straight Street is the street traversed by St. Paul when he visited Damascus and Pope John Paul II insisted to re-trace that same route when he visited Damascus as well.

    I enjoy your postings. They have a different “taste” I guess πŸ™‚

    Comment by kinano | June 26, 2007 | Reply

  6. I enjoy the postings here, too.

    I had no idea of the cross referencing between the books and found the subject very interesting.

    And, Dab, thanks for your link.

    Comment by jolynna | June 26, 2007 | Reply

  7. Thank you, Sparkle! πŸ™‚

    Kinan, my husband, my neice, Little Diamond, and I share a belief that Damascus is one of the most wonderful cities on this earth. I remember sitting in that souk, drinking tea, and thinking of the ghosts of the thousands like me, traversing Damascus (and Syria) through the ages. Most Americans don’t know that Damascus is the oldest continuously occupied city on the planet. How cool is that??

    Jolyna – You would love a visit to the Middle East. You find kids named Issa (Jesus) everywhere! The Qura’an and the Bible have more in common than they have differences. The major sticking point is whether or not Jesus Christ is divine. It’s no longer debatable in our culture, but our theologians debated it for centuries before the debate was quashed.

    I look forward to an afterlife where the answers to all these quarrels and human misunderstandings are revealed, where we live in heavenly harmony, and we no longer see “through a glass, darkly”.

    Comment by intlxpatr | June 26, 2007 | Reply

  8. I am the anglican minister in Kuwait. My reader delivered her sermon on this very topic. Hmmmm! Were you there or did she get her idea from you?

    Blessings

    Andy

    Comment by andy | June 28, 2007 | Reply

  9. Andy – you are always welcome. You know me. πŸ™‚

    Comment by intlxpatr | June 28, 2007 | Reply

  10. […] his tomb in Damascus; at our church in Kuwait on the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, one of the readings was from the Quran. I love it when our worlds intersect and we can discover what we can learn from one another, to the […]

    Pingback by St. John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit « Here There and Everywhere | June 24, 2013 | Reply


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