Today we celebrate a saint with a tremendous willpower. He acts in the power of his fore-runner fellow prophet, Elias. Actually, the whole of the prophetic tradition is about manifesting God’s will in a world where diverse forces (‘wills’) threaten God’s world with deterioration. ‘he brought a sore famine upon them, and by his zeal he diminished their number…Who broughtest kings to destruction, and honourable men from bed?’
John stands in the line of these powerful prophets empowered by God’s will. In a sense, he continues the witness to God’s unshakeable will. ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and low…’. And again, we see John’s irresistible power of honesty and courage. ‘Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptised of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to feel from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance.’
Yet, John shows the other side of this extraordinary power. This is the willpower of love, capable of bringing about and assisting the greatest transformations. ‘And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answered and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came the publicans to be baptized and said to him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed to you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.’
One should notice, however, that this tradition based on ‘the will of God’ has got derailed in a world when will-power as such, at all levels, has fallen apart? Previously confident identities, strong ‘will-powers’, politicians, gender-identity, rule-abiding - are all just ebbing away. There is no longer the clarity of ‘yes and yes’, and ‘no and now’, there is no sense of final truth or clinging to principles. The developed world is just being melted down by endless distractions and de-centeredness. It seems that our soft-floating world is refusing the ‘strong God’, or anything which affirms Unity over against diversity.
That is why it is important to see and celebrate in John the Baptist the power of a loving God. It can shake the world. But more importantly, the emphasis is on the transformation which this powerful love can bring about.
And there is a further level to this. The saints whom we celebrate point to a Power full of integrity. They point to God, as a lowing power, as ‘a cultural superego’, genuinely serving us. Yes, like any narratives governing a culture, there were times when it was judged as controlling or harsh, feared, even, ‘punishing’. The role of the saints, I think, is to clarify the nature of this power, centred on love and self-emptying for us to keep our culture alive.
One should have no illusions. Our ‘softened up’ culture, this age of totalized uncertainty, is in the grip of the most powerful forces. We should posit it as ‘the shadow superego’ of postmodernity. The disintegration of all diverse wills, like space-debris, are being united into a new power. This is like in Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey the malfunctioning HAL 900 robot, artificial intelligence, in control of the space ship. Now, this new cultural superego (of political correctness?) with an iron-will makes its own demands, like the punishing God of the old despised age. With an equally forceful will, it enforces the reverse of past constraints, inertia and order. Like a ‘bad’ superego, it punishes, controls, and disintegrates human action. Its main danger, from the Biblical perspective, it severs humans from the sense and commitment to ultimate truth(s).
What is said is too black and white? Maybe. But if we won’t find a way to reconnect with the power of our abandoned Loving God, there is zero chance to tackle with crises, like the looming ecological catastrophe, which would require unified action - unified will.
Let the voice of John the Baptist awake us into the missing will-quest onto God.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..