The call of John the Baptist
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrach of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas the word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. He went through the whole Jordan district proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the sayings of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled in,
Every mountain and hill be laid low,
Winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.
And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.
It might not seem very important to know that Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene when John the Baptist began to preach repentance. But maybe it does help us remember the historicity of our tradition and the universal need for prophets. The wild prophet of the Jordanian desert is an archetype of all those who call us to our senses, defying the social Establishment, exposing the official denials and evasions, simply saying it as it is even when they are condemned by the authorities as enemies of the people and scapegoated or assassinated.
John is an Advent figure, preparing the way for the appearance of Jesus on the public stage. Advent means literally a ‘coming towards’. He is coming towards us and, as we sense that approach, perhaps we start going out to meet him. This is spatial imagery used to describe a spiritual event unlimited by space or time but still happening in human geography and real time.
What is at the heart of the prophet’s message? A ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. For many today, these terms have as much meaning as the language of computer programming. But they evoke important and timeless human needs for meaning, ritual and transformation. Sin is endemic. The world is ravaged by sin, personal and collective, in families, in corporate boardrooms, in pollution of the planet or against the minds of the young.
We might give guilt, shame, sorrow or regret as synonyms for ‘repentance’. Not bad reactions, at least for a while, when we acknowledge our sins and the harm we have done to others. We should do more, however, than just shrug our shoulders and say ‘let’s move on’. The essential meaning of repentance (metanoia) is not just what we do but a change of mind, literally ‘beyond mind’. Against the horror of fear and being trapped in destructive patterns of behaviour, nothing less will do than a shift in the very operating system of our attention. It is not a change of belief that we need but a change of perception, not ideology but how and what we see.
This initiates the process of forgiveness within and towards ourselves. It is never easy to see how lost, deceived or self-centred we once were. Recognition of this demands reconciliation with the true self we had rejected. We cannot forgive others the harm they inflicted until we have understood what forgiving ourselves means. ‘Why should I forgive myself? He’s the one who hurt me!’ Maybe – and justice must certainly be seen to be done. But if we are to become whole, it is not enough to be a victim. We need to be healed by a change of perspective, by a new way of seeing the whole situation.
Repentance goes with ‘baptism’, a visible sign of what is happening within consciousness. This may have explicit religious meaning as in initiation into a new community, which helps keep the change of mind going. But meditation too is a baptism, an immersion in the stream of consciousness. And it has an outward form, visible signs. How we sit, manifest stillness and outer silence, our daily rhythm of morning and evening, are rituals that express and fortify the process of changing our mind, expanding our consciousness. Meditation also expresses the smoothing out and filling in that Isaiah describes, showing us that we are delivered from horror to a new state of health and flourishing.
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