In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading speaks of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of our Lord. In doing so, the mind turns toward the historicity of it all. Recall how last week this historical theme was brought forward in our being reminded of our situatedness between the two Apocalypses of Christ – his two revelations – the one, now in the past, when he was born of Mary and laid in the manger, so that it might be possible for mankind to “behold his glory” (cf. John 1.14) – to see the One who is by nature invisible, to hear the One who by nature dwells in silence, to touch the One who by nature is immutable. And the other apocalypse, yet lying ahead of us, or rather, as Blessed John Henry Newman said, the apocalypse that lies ever close at hand, for Christ is “ever at our doors; as near [two thousand] years ago as now, and not nearer now than then; and not nearer when He comes than now.”
We saw last week how history is all jumbled together by the gospels. How it is that, although Jesus became incarnate at a particular moment in time, his nativity lies yet ahead of us, for he will be born, as it were, in our midst at our commemoration of his Nativity in some two weeks’ time, and he will come again with power and great glory.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber’i-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturae’a and Trachoni’tis, and Lysa’ni-as tetrarch of Abile’ne, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Ca’iaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechari’ah in the wilderness…” (Luke 3.1-2)
All of this prolegomena is meant to situate the ensuing narrative historically. It is as though Luke were saying that at THIS juncture in the space-time continuum the following things took place. One might be tempted to think that this is axiomatic, or that it is incidental, or even beside the point. Why, in other words, should God’s word lay down something so mundane so apodictically?
I had a discussion with an unbelieving friend not long ago. My friend was engaging in one of the nineteenth century’s more popular intellectual pastimes: he was comparing the events narrated in the Gospels with those of other mythologies. One thinks, in this regard, of James George Frazier’s The Golden Bough. My friend was suggesting that the Christian Gospels had ripped-off the motifs of competitor mythologies extant during the first century, and repackaged them with reference to Jesus – for the purpose of elaborating them, or critiquing them, or supplanting them. But in any event, if that were the case, then what is of lasting significance in the Gospels, if there is anything at all of lasting significance in them, has to do with the message or the moral or the knowledge that they package and convey to us. And this message or moral or knowledge, or whatever… THE POINT OF THE STORY can obviously be apprehended independently of its putative historicity. According to my friend, in other words, it doesn’t matter whether Jesus really did all of these things, or even whether he ever really existed. What matters is the message about new life and loving your neighbor and forgiving your enemies and so on. And to grasp these important points, you don’t need Jesus, all you really need are stories about him.
Even if these sentiments were plausible – and they are not – they are at odds with the claims of the Gospels. And this is at the center of what is in evidence from today’s reading from Luke. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber’i-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturae’a and Trachoni’tis, and Lysa’ni-as tetrarch of Abile’ne, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Ca’iaphas,”… AT THAT MOMENT OF HISTORY, Luke is saying, the word of God came to the forerunner of our Lord in the wilderness of Judea. “[A]nd he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (Luke 3.3). Because the King of Kings was about to come onto the timeline of the universe, to become historically situated, in order to accomplish what the prophets foretold.
The efforts of James George Frazier, and my unbelieving friend, and their intellectual counterparts in the modern world, to get above the narrative of the Gospel, to place it alongside competitor narratives, like specimens on a laboratory table, to be dissected and critiqued, are all in vain. The narratives with which we have to do, do not allow us that space. When the reality of the person of Jesus is excised, there is nothing left of any use to anyone.
What the Gospels tell us – and it is there to be believed or disbelieved, but in any event not to be salvaged for parts – what the Gospels tell us is that, in the words of WH Auden, the eternal did a temporal act / the infinite became a finite fact. They purport to tell us that these things REALLY HAPPENED at a particular time and place – to the end that we might, for the first time, become really alive. In the words of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus did all kinds of things that are not recorded in the Gospels, but the things that have been recorded in them, “are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name,” (John 20.31).
It is not enough, however, just to believe that these things happened. As St. James said, “Even the demons believe – and shudder,” (James 2.19). Its true that we must BEGIN with a belief in the veracity of what the Gospels relate; or at least we can’t move on if we don’t believe in this way. But we cannot stop there. If we would have life in his name, as St. Paul put it, we must become “conformed to the image” of Jesus (Romans 8.29). We must somehow become incorporated into his person – and obviously that can’t happen if he never really existed. So how DOES it happen? According to the Scriptures, it begins by being baptized. In baptism (and the related sacrament of Confirmation), according to St. Paul, we mystically die and rise with Christ, and are enabled to live a new kind of life, a life governed by God and empowered by his Spirit.
But note well that being conformed to the image of God’s Son, living “in Christ” means living a life IN COMMUNION with others. And this is not an abstraction – it is a reality lived-out HERE, in this place, and by this group of people, a life that is made possible and dynamic by our gathering together in this place for the mass, Sunday by Sunday, and day by day. That is how the reality of our incorporation into Christ’s Body is effected, and likewise how it is demonstrated. Scripture puts it this way:
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread…” (1 Cor. 10.16-17)
We become one Body in Christ because “we all partake of the one bread.” That’s how it happens, and we know of no other way. You cannot do it on your own, by sitting at home, and reading and praying and doing yoga, as good as those things may be. They are good to the extent that they grow out of, and into, gathering together to offer and receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Nor does it end there. For every time we gather in this place, we go out again – we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” – out there, in the context of our daily lives, our work, our recreation, and our relationships. We must put into practice OUT THERE what we hear and receive IN HERE. That is how we are conformed to the image of God’s son. That is how we “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Ephesians 4.13). That is how we are SAVED. And we know of no other way.
But it is all grounded in the historicity – the TRUTH – of the events of the Incarnation, recorded in the Gospels. That is why the evangelists take such pains to relate these things to us. Because if these narratives are not true, then the rest of it is at best a bunch of quaint rituals, and at worst a mountain of pernicious lies. But we give thanks to God for laying a foundation for our salvation; we thank him that what we read and receive IS true, that…
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber’i-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturae’a and Trachoni’tis, and Lysa’ni-as tetrarch of Abile’ne, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Ca’iaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechari’ah in the wilderness…”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.