Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most unusual and important people in the history of our faith: St. John the Baptist. He has the titles of prophet, forerunner, and baptist because he fulfilled all three roles, speaking the word of the Lord as he prepared the way for the coming of Christ, calling God’s people to repentance and baptism, and even baptizing the incarnate Son of God at the very moment when the Holy Trinity was revealed by the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon the Lord in the Jordan.
We shall make a few comments on a passage that Saint Sophrony wrote about Saint John the Baptist. The Lord exalted Saint John the Baptist and bore testimony that he is the greatest among them that are born of women, because he made himself the least (see Matt. 11:11). Although he had all the glory in Israel and many people even considered him to be Christ, he put himself under the shoes of the Lord and witnessed that he was unworthy to unloose the latchets of Christ’s shoes (see Luke 3:15-16, Mark. 1:7 and Acts 13:24-25), and that ‘Christ must increase, but I must decrease’ (cf. John 3:30). We must not forget that we fell from pride and the greatest virtue that our Lord has manifested in order to save us is His humility, the opposite of that which makes us perish. It is indeed the humility of Christ that saves us, His greatest gift which enables us to find healing from our fall. The Lord Himself sets forth humility as a condition in order to learn anything divine: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matt. 11:29). If we learn the humility of Christ, we will be able to perceive two realities: the divine reality and the human reality. We will perceive the presence of God in everything and in everyone, and we will also perceive the falsehood in us. Christ is the Light of the world, ‘which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ (John 1:9), for every man has the image of God in himself. God has planted in man the potential to know his Creator and to unite with Him and, if we see His image in every person, we can honour and love every human being as ourselves. However, if we are to perceive that image in the others, we need to be humble, for humility attracts grace and grace is the light of life. Without humility we remain blind and can understand nothing divine and nothing human.
The greatness of Saint John the Baptist lies in the fact that he was so humble as to be able to recognise in the humble form that the Lord assumed in order to come to us, the Almighty God, the One Who Is, as it was revealed to Moses (Exod. 3:14). Many ascetics dwelled along the Jordan at that time, and there were many schools of prophets, but he was the only one who recognised the Lord as ‘the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world’ (cf. John 1:29, 36). He had great disciples resembling him, the first great Apostles, whom he gladly prompted to follow the Lord. It is not rare to see nowadays even great spiritual fathers, who are very attached to their disciples and will not easily let them go. Yet, Saint John the Baptist was so great, humble and free that, having seen and recognised the Lord, he directed his own disciples towards Christ. And his disciples, who had grown in this atmosphere of freedom and were humble like their master, followed the Lord and became the pillars of the Church, the pillars of the apostolic community.
St John the Baptist impressed so much the whole of Israel, that they were puzzled to know whether He was THE Prophet, the one they expected (see John 1:19-27). ‘Who art thou?’, they asked him, and he declared: ‘I am not the Christ.’ Immediately, his mind was on Him Whom he expected and for Whom he was preparing the people. ‘What then? Art thou that Prophet?’, that particular Prophet, about Whom Moses prophesied saying: ‘The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken’ (Deut. 18:15). And again John answered: ‘No.’ Then in a deep inner struggle the Jews asked him: ‘Who art thou? What sayest thou of thyself?’ ‘In other words’, says Father Sophrony, ‘what awareness do you have of yourself, that you baptise the people, that you call people to repentance?’ This is what the Jews later asked the Lord: ‘By what authority doest thou these things?’ (Mark 11:28). John then answered who he was, yet not directly, but only in reference to Him for Whom he was preparing Israel. He does not say ‘I am a prophet’, but, ‘he pointed out to them the presence among them of Him Who by His Being was before him, before all, and Whose shoes’ latchet he, John, was not worthy to unloose.’ This is precisely how the Lord would later answer the Jews about Who He was, always in function of His obedience to the Father, so that only if they were humble they would understand.
Father Sophrony writes that Saint John was the first to recognise the Lord as the Yahweh of Israel, so he is indeed a pioneer in this confession of faith. He received the confirmation of the truth that he had confessed to his disciples when he baptised Christ in the Jordan, that is, when he heard the voice of the Father bearing witness to the Son and saw the Holy Spirit descending on Him in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16-17). For us it is a given truth, it is very easy to recognise Christ as the Lord, because we are born from Christian parents, we are baptised and receive such an enormous grace, though it may be buried in our heart. We have a history of more than 2000 years of holiness of life, of saints, who knew Him perfectly and loved Him immensely. As time goes by, it works in a double way: it is true that people become more and more alienated and lose grace, but they also have more tokens of the action of God in the world. Recently a whole cloud of great saints have been canonised. They are genuine witnesses who attained to the measure of sanctity, so it is very easy for us to be strengthened in faith and follow the way of Christ.
Saint Sophrony writes: ‘Moses and the prophets announced beforehand Christ’s appearing on earth among us which is expressed in the name “Emmanuel” or “God with us” (Matt. 1:23), but when this God appeared, people did not recognise Him. And this is not surprising.’ They were scandalised. Even about the Apostles we read in the Gospel that, when they saw Christ after His Resurrection, some worshipped Him but ‘some doubted’ (Matt. 28:17), yet Father Sophrony had that holy discernment to perceive that they did not doubt His greatness, for they had a perfect vision and a perfect faith, but they doubted, rather they wondered above measure that the human nature could receive such an abundance of grace and glory from God. Father Sophrony continues: ‘How is it possible to recognise in a human form Him Who by His word alone created all the worlds?’ The Jews were surprised to see Christ in a man, although His incarnation had been prophesied. The Jews believed that Messiah would be a man, the son of David, but not the Son of God.
At the very beginning of Father Sophrony’s return to Christ, although he was confirmed that Christ was God because he had a great spiritual state, he was nevertheless fighting with Him, maybe because of the influence of the East: ‘How can You, this great and perfect God, allow so much suffering in this world?’ And this Almighty God, with Whom he was quarrelling, answered to him as the Crucified Lord: ‘Is it you who died for them on the Cross?’ Then Father Sophrony was put to shame and his love for Christ multiplied. He makes the same comment about Saint Paul, who understood that Jesus was God, when He appeared unto him on the way to Damascus, and he asked Him: ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Christ then answered: ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks’ (see Acts 9:4-6). Here again Christ answers as the Crucified Lord, as Yahweh. Both in Saint Paul’s and in Father Sophrony’s case, Christ was recognised as God and He answered as the Crucified Lord. That is why Father Sophrony was saying that deification is unattainable without an absolute faith in the divinity of Christ and in the divine origin of His word. Then in our conscience Yahweh, the Almighty God of Israel, will be identified with the Crucified Lord Who died for the sins of the world – this is the right faith.
Father Sophrony could philosophise about any aspect; in fact, he could move on all levels. I saw him speaking with a philosopher as a philosopher, and with the old Cypriot ladies with extreme simplicity and very seriously. Father Sophrony knew that it is necessary sometimes to speak the language of educated people, because unless you crush their arrogance and show them that you are not ignorant of their field, they will not humble themselves to accept the word of grace for their regeneration. He was not philosophising out of pride, but because of his utter desire to evangelise them. This is how Saint Paul dealt with the Athenians when he spoke to them like a philosopher, saying: ‘I have come to speak to you about this Unknown God’ (see Acts 17:23-28). He even referred to philosophy of the Epicureans using some of their expressions like, ‘in him we live, and move, and have our being’ or ‘for we are also his offspring, his generation’ (Acts 17:28). Saint Paul said fantastic words! He did not speak in this manner out of pride, but because he wanted to crush their arrogance so as to humble them and be able to impart to them some spiritual knowledge, a gift from God.
‘In its search for knowledge of God the human mind always naturally strives towards the infinity, the invisible, the inexpressible, towards that which is far above every form, every thought and knowledge,’ continues Father Sophrony.Although they had many gods, the Greeks sought for that one God, Whom they did not know. The Jews had the same tendency: their Yahweh was so inaccessible, so incomprehensible, that in the end they even forgot His Name, they remained with the four consonants, without being able to pronounce them. Father Sophrony means that it is an urge of the human mind to speak only of apophatic theology. When we emphasise only this aspect, we remain within the confines of the created, but we also need the participation in the light of God, in His uncreated energy, which is also the knowledge of God. ‘And then suddenly the possibility is offered us to see Him, to touch Him, to have Him among us as someone humiliated, as a man, persecuted and destitute, without any power whatsoever in this world, neither political, nor even ecclesiastical, though it would have seemed quite natural, inasmuch as He was the Lawgiver.’ In his book ‘His Life Is Mine’, Saint Sophrony expresses his deep grief that the synagogue was founded in the Name of Christ and yet He was rejected by it. ‘How is it then possible now that not only He does not belong to the Church hierarchy, but is even persecuted by this hierarchy which was established by God in His Name?’ This is how Saint Paul grieves for his own people, his ‘kinsmen according to the flesh to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the giving of the law, and the promises’, for whom he wished he were accursed (Rom. 9:3-4).
‘What a mind, or what knowledge, or what a spirit man must have to be able to see in this humiliation of God another aspect of His Absoluteness? A new Revelation, completing the former, which was given to Moses “in the darkness” (cf. Exod. 20:21, Deut. 5:22-23). How great one has to be to express this new Revelation about God as Light, [as Father Sophrony knew Him himself], in Whom is no darkness at all…’ In the fragment we have just read, Father Sophrony compares the knowledge in the Old Testament which still had darkness and was not complete, with the true Light, which is now in the world and gives a possibility to every man to know Him as Light. And Saint John the Divine says that, when we see Him as Light, ‘we shall become like Him, for we shall see Him as He is’ (cf. 1 John 3:2). It is about his own experience of Light that Father Sophrony speaks in this passage. This experience cannot be expressed or described in human words. Saint Paul said it first: he heard ‘unspeakable words that cannot be uttered’ (cf. 2 Cor. 12:4), yet their effect is life ‘and life was the light of men’ (John 1:4). This Uncreated Light is the true life of men. This uncreated life has an apophatic character, because it is beyond the created, yet, in Christ, it is communicable to man.
Question (Father Hegoumen Peter) : Can we say that the attitude of Saint John the Baptist is the inverted attitude of the devil’s suggestion to Adam to become like God?
Answer: Yes. Exactly. All the prophets had a taste of this inverted perspective when they saw the glory of God. That is why all the prophets promoted this humble attitude, the way of Christ which was revealed fully and perfectly when He came in the flesh. Remember Isaiah calling himself ‘a wretched man dwelling among vile people’ (see Isa. 6:5), or David the Prophet, who hoped that God would forgive his sins when his soldier was throwing stones at him (see 2 Sam. 16:6-11). The Prophets were all in that inverted perspective, which is to see how great God’s mercy and love is, and how unworthy we are.
Question: Logically, apophatic theology seems to glorify God more. Can we say, however, that the fact that we can have communion with this great God glorifies Him more, just as we say that the Christ’s descent is more of a miracle than His ascent?
Answer: We need both. At Epiphany we say, ‘Great are Thou O Lord [through this grace that descends upon earth], but who sufficeth to sing Thy wonders?’ The apophatic must serve the cataphatic, but we need to keep in mind both dimensions, in order not to lose the greatness of the cataphatic experience that we have received in Christ.
Question: Christ says that it was the tax collectors and the harlots that recognised Saint John the Baptist, not the Pharisees and the scribes (see Matt. 21:32). Are the Saints also recognised by sinners?
Answer: This shows the greatness of God and proves that nothing prevents Him from visiting any person. He visits those who are sanctified from the womb of their mother, like Saint John the Baptist, Saint John the Divine, but nothing prevents Him to bring the worthy out of the unworthy, and to reveal great people by healing their many wounds. We cannot compare, but those who receive grace having been wounded by sin before, are more able to appreciate grace, humble themselves, have great gratitude and make great strides. Even Saint John of the Ladder says, ‘Who is greater, the one who has never sinned or the one who has sinned, repented and restored himself? Rather the second, in the image of the One Who died and was risen again for our salvation.’ The Lord, in fact, was provoking the Jews who claimed to be the chosen people of God, by proving to them that He had the power to raise children of Abraham from ‘stones’, from the publicans and the harlots, raising His images from fleshy stones.
Question: You said that the hearts of many people will be revealed by Christ’s coming in Israel. Why is it that the spirit of humility provokes such a hostility?
Answer: Because in humility there is selflessness that prepares man to receive the selfless love of God, which saves and perfects. Whereas, pride is selfish and selfishness can neither love, nor have communion with the others, nor receive the spirit. Does pride feel threatened by humility? Yes, because humility is light and what communion can light have with the darkness of pride? (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14). The light of humility silently reveals the darkness of pride, and for this reason the Pharisees felt threatened by the presence of Christ, which was a wordless judgment for them.