Nicolas Stebbing CR reflects on the death of John the Baptist
It was a squalid, nasty death. There was nothing grand about it. Here was a great preacher, the last of the Old Testament prophets, the forerunner of Christ, killed in a prison cell at the behest of a spiteful woman, because he told her the truth. The fact that his death foreshadowed the death of the Messiah meant nothing at the time. It seemed a great life come to nothing and there was no resurrection three days later to comfort his disciples.
There are times when death seems right; death completing a long and well-lived life, or death bringing an end to intolerable suffering. Yet there are other deaths we all know about when it seemed such a waste, such a tragic cutting off of a good and noble life. What about the millions who died in the Second World War? Was that simply one horrid inevitable tragedy? Was the destruction of Nazism worth the millions of lives it took to destroy it?
Was that God’s mistake or ours? It is hard not to say sometimes that God got this one wrong. It is all very well for God to tell us in Isaiah’s words, ‘my ways are not your ways; my thoughts are not your thoughts’. It does not tell us much about why he does it this way; why exactly his thoughts and ways are so different from ours.
Sometimes of course, the passing of the years reveals a different story, or creates a different story. John Bradburn, like Bernard Mizeki, has been recognized as a Saint by the Zimbabwean people and thousands gather at his shrine. Thousands of lives are touched by their deaths. John and Bernard continue to preach the Gospel by the manner of their death. Others who have died, seemingly before their time, did so with a courage and sometimes a humour which makes one glad they were spared some of the alternative, long drawn out ways of departing this life which we see around us. It still leaves us with the questions; why does God
often make such a mess of death? Leaving aside the millions killed in the mindless slaughter of wars for which we perhaps cannot blame God and the few who die deaths which stand as a witness to the love and mercy of God, there are a lot of others that need explaining.
I remember Trevor definitely looking forward to death so that he could get God to explain some of the deaths he had known. It is Trevor who makes me think with gratitude of the deaths I have known in Community. That time with a Brother when he dies – and for a little while afterwards – has a most extraordinary quality. It is as if the heavens have opened and the angels of God are ascending and descending. No doubt they are. I get a glimpse of how this world and the next are really one; there are no boundaries between them and the Brother has lost nothing as he moves from one world to the other. He has gone somewhere infinitely bigger.
As C.S. Lewis said when Charles Williams died, ‘When the idea of death and the idea of Charles Williams came together, it was the idea of death that changed’.
For a Christian, death cannot be a place of loss, of gloom, of emptiness; death cannot be the dreary place it seems to be in classical mythology; nor can it be the rather cold and impersonal place which eastern religions seem to present. When we talk of death we are talking really of life. The place to which John the Baptist went from that squalid prison cell must have been full of life and light and love since it was the home of the Father of Christ who himself was life and light. Today’s
epistle sums up the promise beautifully for us. St Paul piles up the phrases with an exuberance which defies any theological analysis: ‘Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places… chosen to be holy and blameless before him in love… to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us …the riches of his grace that he lavished on us …that we who set our hope in Christ, might live to the praise of his glory’.
Our true purpose
That is a wonderful reminder to us, as we go into retreat, of why we are here. In the discussions we have had over this past week about the Appeal, about the new monastery, about new vestments, about the position of the lectern or the arrangements for Holy Week, we can lose sight of what we are here for: the praise and the glory of God. Not our praise and glory, not even the wonderful things God has promised to give us if we stick out this life, but the praise and glory of God now and in all eternity. The Bible and the saints tell us if we can turn our attention away from ourselves and look towards God we shall find that joy which completely satisfies our desires and fills us with life. Or, as Jesus said, ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you’.
Did John the Baptist know that? Maybe he did. He was the forerunner. He came ahead of Christ into the world, blazing a path for the Messiah to walk on, a path which led over the hills of Galilee to suffering and death. Yet he was first, too, of the followers of Christ to make that journey beyond death, to blaze a path for us to walk on, in the footsteps of Christ, looking ahead ‘to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, to innumerable angels in festal gathering and to God’ to whom be glory and praise now and in all eternity. Amen. ND
This article was originally
delivered as a sermon
at the Community
of the Resurrection, Mirfield