The Baptist and the Christ: Cancer vs Capricorn
(This sermon was given in Dublin on 19th June 2005)
Next Tuesday, 21st June, is Midsummer Day, the longest day of the year. Barely will the sun set before it is rising again. In former times, when people were more attuned to the rhythms of the earth and sky than we are, it was celebrated with bonfires and feasting, and no doubt the neo-pagans among us will be out in the woods and on the hillsides, at Stonehenge and Newgrange, on Tuesday, keeping alive our ancestral customs, acknowledging our dependence upon the sun for life and livelihood. It’s always been a rather special day for me, because it was my dad’s birthday – he would have been 98 on Tuesday – and it is also the anniversary of my ordination to the ministry.
Astronomically it is the day of the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its point of maximum elevation in the northern hemisphere. From that point on it will begin its slow decline, the days growing progressively shorter, until it reaches its lowest point on December 21st, the winter solstice, when it barely rises before it sets, and motorists are troubled, even at midday, by the low-lying sun shining directly into the windscreen.
|Mary with John the Baptist and Jesus (Raphael)|
From the very beginning of Christianity, the time of the summer solstice has been associated with John the Baptist, and his feast day will be celebrated in Catholic churches next Friday, June 24th. The ostensible reason for this is that, in the Gospel of Luke, we learn that John’s mother, Elizabeth, was already six months pregnant with John when Mary became pregnant with Jesus, so if Jesus was born on 25th December, John should have been born six months earlier, on 24th/25th June.
This six month gap in their ages could be a pure historical accident, of course, but I am inclined to think that their births have been spaced six months apart in order to identify them with the two solstices. One clue for this comes in something John says in the Gospel of John: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’, which is a perfect description of the sun’s behaviour between the two solstices: at the summer solstice, when John the Baptist is born, the sun begins its southerly journey – it ‘decreases’; at the winter solstice, when Jesus is born, it begins its northerly ascent – it ‘increases’.
And there is a further clue which does not come directly from the Gospels. In the ancient mystical schools, out of which Christianity sprang, there was the belief that souls incarnated on earth through two celestial gates: one gate was the zodiacal constellation of Cancer, through which human souls came to birth; the other was the constellation Capricorn, through which the souls of the gods were born. Such thinking is reflected in Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus faces two doorways in a cave in Ithaca: one, facing north, is Cancer, the door through which human beings may go; the other, facing south, is Capricorn, and is reserved for the gods. ‘No mortal feet may pass there,’ says the text. The sun enters Cancer at the time of the summer solstice, and Capricorn at the winter solstice. John is born through the gate of Cancer, so his birth is a mortal birth, which helps to explain what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Of all those born of woman, there is none greater than John the Baptist; but even the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.’ John represents the finest qualities of a human being, but Jesus calls us to something higher.
(You no doubt find this astrological stuff strange, but I stress now as I always stress when I mention these things, that the Gospels were not written last week by graduates in media studies and journalism from UCD. They belong to a culture very different from our own, one in which the starry sky played a very significant part. We forget this at our peril.)
The Gospels contrast the teachings of the two. As we saw in our reading today, John’s teaching is purely conventional and pragmatic. He tells those who have two coats to give one away, and those who have plenty of food to share with those who have none. He himself lives frugally, dressed only in animal skins, and he eats locusts and wild honey – not a terribly appealing diet, but one that is hardly likely to upset the ecological balance. His advice to the tax collectors is, ‘Don’t collect more than you are entitled to collect,’ and he tells the soldiers to stop extorting money and to be content with their pay. What John the Baptist is really saying is ‘behave yourself’, ‘do your duty,’ ‘remember that you share the earth with other people and you must respect their rights as well as your own’. If John were alive today he would probably be a member of the Green Party, demonstrating at the G.8 Summit in a duffel coat and sandals, calling for a cancellation of the Third World debt, while eating vegetarian cheese and wholemeal bread. John would also make a good, earnest, worthy, Unitarian, convinced that the sum of human happiness would be immeasurably increased if only we would start to act with a bit more consideration and civic responsibility. We Unitarians don’t have patron saints, but if we did John the Baptist would probably head the list.
Contrast this kind of conventional teaching with that of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t tell us to share what we have, but to give it all away; he doesn’t tell us to consider the rights of our neighbours, but to love them as we love ourselves; he doesn’t tell us to fight fairly, he tells us not to fight at all, even if we have to pay for our submissiveness with our lives. Jesus doesn’t tell us to keep the rules; he says there are no rules for those who genuinely love. He doesn’t, like some reformist politician, encourage us to build a tidier and more just version of the society in which we are now living; he holds out the prospect of a way of life so radically different from the one we have now that it will be as if the stars have fallen from the sky and a new heaven and a new earth have come into being.
Challenging stuff. No wonder we’ve chosen to ignore Jesus and follow John the Baptist instead. Indeed, Christianity should really be called Baptistianity, since we’ve opted to go down the route of political and economic pragmatism outlined by John. And where has it got us? A quick trawl through any textbook of world history should remind us that we human beings have never been able to get the political or economic formulae right, and a glance at the news on any day of the week should alert us to the fact that we don’t seem to be any nearer finding a solution to our ills than we were two thousand years ago. Thousands of children will die today because they don’t have access to clean water. Thousands more will go blind through eye diseases which are perfectly and easily preventable. The world is torn apart by war today as it has been since the beginning of time, and I, like many of you, have lived most of my life under the threat of nuclear annihilation, a threat which has still not receded completely. Instead of the gradual amelioration of conditions envisaged by our optimistic ancestors, the last century witnessed the cruel death is warfare of more people than at any other time in the past. By the bitterest of ironies, the 20th Christian century was more bloody than the first. And just last week, a new biography of Mao Tse Tung claims that this man, hailed by so many in China and throughout the world as a political saviour, was responsible for the death of 70 million Chinese people, putting him above both Hitler and Stalin as the 20th century’s most notorious political tyrant.
Closer to home, the marching season will soon be getting under way in the north, and last night UTV showed film of the first salvos being launched – the stones, the water cannons, the riot shields, the ambulances. And although we in the developed west may have cleaner bodies, better diets, and longer lives than our ancestors, the aimless hedonism of our material prosperity only serves to highlight our cultural and spiritual bankruptcy. Last week’s Searchlight programme was asking why 300 young people – mostly men – have committed suicide in the past few years in Northern Ireland. And our prosperity has not freed us from vindictiveness and spite. (This is a trivial but telling example.) A little while ago, the highly respected British radio broadcaster, John Humphries, said that his ten-year-old son could read the news better than Huw Edwards or Fiona Bruce (he was really complaining about the high salaries these T.V. presenters earn). A few days later, Hugh Edwards – smart, intelligent, urbane, educated, sophisticated – got his own back in a speech, referring to John Humphries as ‘the dwarf, John Humphries’. I despair when I read such things. What chance is there of peace and harmony, of a genuine new world, when even our most accomplished citizens see fit to trade hurtful insults like this?
The answer is, of course, that there is no chance. We are going to hell in a handcart, and our best efforts seem to be devoted to damage limitation. And Bob Geldof – a reincarnation of John the Baptist if ever there was one – is currently goading us all into action on behalf of Africa’s dispossessed and starving millions, but even his heroic efforts will have little more than cosmetic effect, as he himself will freely admit.
Concentrating on that which is purely human within us, that which is symbolically born at the summer solstice, has failed and is destined to fail, for the simple reason that, as the children’s story today illustrated, none of us is, in our human nature, fit to plant the tree which will yield the golden peaches. But we are forgetting the other side of the polarity, that which is born at the winter solstice, the divine nature in which we all, as sons and daughters of God, participate. Mystical Christianity – along with the mystical strands of all the spiritual systems – teaches that we are more than physical organisms, more than random assemblages of molecules, more than super-intelligent apes. It tells us that all of us, without exception, have, as the Quakers say, ‘that of God within us’, that we are sharers in the creative process, ‘gods in ruins’ as Emerson put it. The secular philosophies which dominate the intellectual world in the materialistic west have done their best to drive such thinking from our consciousness, with catastrophic results I might add, and even the conventional Christian systems seem to imply that we can only become adopted sons and daughters of God if we behave ourselves and if the right magical formulae are chanted over our heads. When the Calvinist, Ian Paisley, was asked, ‘Surely we are all children of God, aren’t, we?’ he thundered in reply, ‘No, we are not. We are children of wrath!’ This, along with countless other misguided theological and philosophical attempts to stress our sinfulness, our wickedness, and our insignificance has succeeded in rendering us little better than naughty squabbling, children, fighting for the last biscuit on the plate.
But Jesus, symbolically born as the light is born at the winter solstice, calls us to recognise our divinity, and tells us that when we do, when we acknowledge our oneness with God and with each other, when we crucify the false self of the grasping, fearful ego, and discover our true identity as sharers in the divine essence, the kingdom of God will appear automatically.
It won’t come with politics. As the Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani wrote just before his death: ‘I have always had great sympathy for revolution. I was in favour of the Vietnamese revolution, the Chinese revolution – all revolutions interest me. And now I realise; all the external revolutions have changed nothing, have only created more violence, more death, more tears. So there is only one possible revolution, the spiritual one, that each person has to learn by himself, but probably all together, can change the fate of mankind.’
We have put our hopes in the way of John the Baptist, the political way, and we have no option but to keep following it. But remember, John is only the precursor, the forerunner. John, like Moses, could never take people into the Promised Land. That role fell to Joshua, whose name is just the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek name Jesus. The way of Jesus is the way of internal, spiritual revolution. It’s time to rediscover it and give it a try.