Scripture Commentary by Richard Leonard SJ
The American political drama West Wing has been a
huge hit on television. Well-scripted, cleverly cast and finely acted,
it dramatises events around the most powerful office in the world. This
is one drama series that does not need to invent stories. With former
White House insiders hired as consultants, West Wing explores
important issues and demonstrates the process by which a public position
is adopted. The best aspect of this drama, however, is that it portrays
the power of the backroom players involved in the process. Every
democracy, every institution, including the Church, has people who are
not the public face of the organisation but are very powerful in shaping
what the group stands for and where it goes. A politician friend of
mine says, ‘Parliament is theatre sports writ large; real power and the
important decisions are worked out in the backrooms, small offices and
corridors.’ Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby would drink to that!
the Baptist is the greatest of the backroom boys in the Christian
story. When the gospels were written, the significance of John's role as
a herald and mentor came to the fore. In first century Palestine there
may not have been parliamentary corridors for John the Baptist to strut,
but his words and actions on the banks of the Jordan were powerful in
recognising who was to follow, what the Christian faith would stand for
and where it would head.
Is it any wonder, then, that
the Birth of John the Baptist is one of the most ancient feasts
commemorated in the earliest Christian Church? Its position in relation
to Christmas is important too. By 354 the Christians had taken over the
Roman celebration of the winter solstice as Christmas Day. John's
birthday is on the summer solstice. After the summer solstice, the
northern hemisphere's sun declines in length and warmth. It is reborn at
the winter solstice. Hence, John comes to prepare the way for the
eternal light we celebrate in Jesus at Christmas. In Luke's Gospel, John
embodies the old covenant, made to Israel. Jesus, the new and
everlasting covenant, made, not just to Israel, but also to all people
everywhere, sees the power and warmth of God's love for us burst forth
Many biblical scholars now think that, for a period of time, Jesus was most probably a disciple of John the Baptist. John may have helped Jesus discern his special calling and to recognise his destiny. Whatever of that, we know that Jesus made a break with John in many ways and called his own disciples. Jesus does not wait for followers to come to him, he heads to the towns and villages where the people are and he speaks to them in ways they can understand. Jesus preaches to Israel first, but then to the Gentiles. Jesus rejects the harsh, ascetical life of the desert for spirituality of the everyday and, unlike John, Jesus does not just preach repentance for sins, but preaches conversion through forgiveness and compassion. As Louise Pambrun puts it, John's ministry was ‘like the fast before the feast’.
John, however, Jesus never wavered from the price that must be paid for
faith in our just and merciful God. So this feast flags that we have
six months to Christmas, not for shopping or any of the other excessive
elements that have hijacked that day, but to recommit ourselves to
living out a spirituality that values the everyday and the ordinary,
that knows the power of compassion and mercy and is ready to pay the
price for living it.
Today is the feast of backroom players. May all of them exercise their power with integrity. And who knows, maybe the real-life counterparts of Sam Seaborne in West Wing or Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister may, one day, have their birthday declared a public holy-day. I bet they're quietly working on it even as I speak!
© Richard Leonard SJ.