More powerful than John

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December 09, 2018

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

He will baptize you with God.

Who is speaking?  John the Baptist, who “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” received the word of God and went out to tell the world about it, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” we are told.

How powerful was he?  Plenty.  John was a prophet, and prophets have been thought to speak for God. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Amos chapter three, the seventh verse. Prophets see or hear what God is doing, it is said. They fascinate us that way. 

I have an odd little book by a respected Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar.  (Imagine trying to make it through first grade with that name.) The book title is A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr.  Dr. Adrienne Von Speyr was a physician or whom Father Von Balthasar had served as spiritual director and confessor, through the course of many years

Here is how the book begins.

“This book is an eyewitness account… It is not intended as publicity or propaganda, but rather as a source of objective information.  I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements.  There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom ‘nothing can be which ought not to be.’  There will be many others who will at once attempt to ‘illuminate’ the entire matter through the methods of depth psychology and so make it supposedly understandable or who will dismiss it all as completely ‘out of date’ and therefore neither interesting nor credible.  Finally, there will be those who will be very annoyed about a charism[i] – should it prove to be a charism – which does not conform to the conventional trends in Christianity today.  To all these persons I must say in advance that (in the sense of 1 Cor 4:1f) their opposition does not trouble me, for, when I state the facts known to me… I am simply doing what I must do…”[ii]

Well, that’s got my attention. What sort of doubtful, annoying, or otherwise objectionable information is Von Balthasar preparing his readers to encounter?  Here goes:

[i] Charism means “divine gift.”

[ii] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 11.

That as a very young child, Adrienne had received religious instruction directly from an angel “who showed her what to do, and what not to do, how one prays, or how one can, in all simplicity, be with God.” [i]

That at age six, on Christmas Eve, though she was not a Roman Catholic, “she had a mysterious encounter with St. Ignatius while walking up a steep street of La Chaux-de-Fonds.[ii]

That on a November morning, 1917, “Mary appeared to her, surrounded by angels and saints.” [iii] 

That, one night “as she was driving home from her office, she suddenly saw a great light in front of the car (a pedestrian also jumped aside in fear…)” and she heard a voice: “Tu vivra au ciel et sur la terre  (You shall live in heaven and on earth.):[iv]

That her medical practice became host to “sudden inexplicable cures which were the talk of the town….”

That she had been given to know – it had seemed to her – that her gift was strong enough to deliver the impossible, but she had a declined this in favor of something better still. One night,  “when, beside the coffin of a child whose death had caused one of her friends infinite sorrow, Adrienne knew precisely: intense prayer could storm the omnipotence of God and bring back this life, but there was a higher possibility: to renounce miraculous power and to submit in silence to the will of God,” [v]

That by night, as she lay sick in the last weeks of her life, God took Adrienne on “travels,” she was “transported in prayer” to places where her praying presence was needed, “into concentration camps… convents… confession booths “where the manner of confessing was false or lukewarm…” and more.[vi]

That in 1941 an angel came to her bedside at night to prepare her for a Holy Saturday experience of Christ’s passion.  These were to be repeated, and deepened, year after year, “revealing in ever new ways a variety of theological relationships.  These passions were not so much a vision of the historical scenes of the suffering that had taken place in Jerusalem  -- there were only occasional glimpses of these, as if for clarification – rather, they were an experience of the interior sufferings of Jesus in all their fullness and diversity…”[vii]

A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr: you can read the book.

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with… God.

 I couldn’t say how God drove John the Baptist out into the wilderness, down into the river, but it isn’t hard to see how a prophet might be able to draw a crowd.  Wouldn’t we go out to see Adrienne Von Speyr?  Did we have something better to do Saturday afternoon?  Christmas shopping?

John talked rough:  “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth, therefore, fruits meet for repentance.”[viii]

That’s a sermon I’ve never tried to preach: the one that begins with my calling you a brood of vipers.   I would have to be told to do it, shown how, and – not that I want it – I don’t have the gift. As the Hogwarts professor said of Miss Hermione Granger, I have no aptitude for divination, so I desperately cling to books.

I’m fine with that. You can learn a lot from books.  Almost anything an angel would tell you, you could dig out of a good library. You shouldn’t doubt that you could teach the average angel a thing or two about one thing or another.  Had it not occurred to you that angels may find us just as fascinating and amazing as we find them? 

They are reported to like music.  Karl Barth said that when the angels in heaven are on duty worshipping God, they listen to Bach, but on their own time they ask Mozart to play for them,  (and the Lord sits in too and listens with special pleasure.) I’m not able to guess what the angels do with Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.

O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

I was talking about what you can learn from books.  I’ve learned a lot about God from books.  I’ve learned a thing or two about myself.  And I’ve learned a surprising thing about “sin.”  S-I-N: sin. What I’ve learned is that even the very notion of sin is joyous.

I had to get pretty deep into the stacks to discover this funny little piece of truth, which is the one that helps us see why Adrienne found herself transported to confession booths, where the confessions and pardons were lukewarm, done by rote, where both priest and penitent were missing an opportunity for joy.

That is correct: confession of our sins, done right, sincerely, is joyful. It is when we don’t believe in sin that our misdoings hold us in a kind of bondage.

When I lie, when you cheat, when we steal, defraud, lose our temper with our wife or husband, let down our parents or our children or our friends  -- when we take advantage of our neighbors, when we deprive them of their opportunities, their just dessert, or take away their joy, or simply spoil their good clean fun, then we are stuck with it forever.  Yesterday’s gone: whatever we did, is done  -- but for better or worse, we still bear the result.  Jesus bore the marks of his wounds even beyond the grave.  We certainly bear the marks of one another’s good or bad behavior, throughout our days. Julie and I have been married more than forty years, and can still be sore about things that happened when we were seventeen.

Our deeds stay with us:  whether we believe in God, or not.  We can be good, or bad whether we believe in God, or not.  We bear responsibility for what we’ve done whether we believe in God, or not. In a hundred ways we never do escape our past.

But call it “sin,” and you have opened a window on an entirely other realm of meaning—more demanding, yes, but also more forgiving. In our evolved history as a species, for the longest time, there was no such thing as “sin.” There was grabbing what you could, keeping what you got away with, maybe sharing some with friends. But there wasn’t “sin.” 

Before the law, said Paul, there was no sin. Then came the divine law which, according to the books, is the first form of grace. Its final form is mercy.

Today, still, apart from faith, there is plenty of give and take, but no such thing as sin, because to believe in sin we must believe in grace first. It takes grace to know ourselves as sinners  -- the same grace in which there is forgiveness, healing, always and forever.

There is only one relationship in which you live, in which you’ll find no end of opportunities to get it right. That is the relationship with the one in whose image you are made, who loves you better than you love yourself, with whom every day opens with an invitation to a fresh start, a new beginning in his Spirit.

For the one who is more powerful than John, is come.

[i] P. 19.

[ii] P.21.

[iii] p. 22.

[iv] 34

[v] p. 34.

[vi] P. 40.

[vii] P. 35.

[viii] Matthew 3:7