Friday, January 14, 2011

11-01-09: Baptism of the Lord

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4,6-7 / Psalm 29 / Acts of the Apostles 10:34-38 / Matthew 3:13-17
Beware of prophets – even the officially sanctioned ones. That could be a subtext for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord we celebrate today. The image of John the Baptist standing waist deep in the Jordan dunking repentant sinners, preparing them for the Day of the Lord, has all the earmarks of a cult – and I’m using the word cult, here, in its most pejorative sense.

In this scene the Baptist takes his place in a very long line of end-of-the-world prophets who spend an awful lot of time scaring people. This type of phenomenon, by no means limited to the religious sphere, seems to coincide historically with significant political developments (I’m sure many of my generation were considerably shaken by the air raid drills we practiced in the event of nuclear Armageddon during and after the Cuban missile crisis). And sometimes coinciding with cultural upheavals and economic downturns – no doubt these days we’re ripe for the pickin’, as they say.

At the turn of the first millennium of the Christian Era – the year 1000AD – most of Christendom was consumed with end-of-the-world fever, awaiting Christ’s second coming and the day of judgment. It didn’t happen. On October 22, 1844 a widespread American following of the self-proclaimed prophet, William Miller, awaited that same second coming. It didn’t happen. On October 23rd some were already labeling the prediction, the Great Disappointment. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, predicted the end of the world in 1891. It didn’t happen. The Jehovah Witnesses have predicted the end of the world as well – more than ten failed predictions over the course of the twentieth century. And now Harold Campion and Family Radio are in the midst of a world-wide campaign to warn everyone that the Rapture will take place on May 21st of this year, followed by a very violent end of the world on October 21st. What Mr. Campion fails to mention on his radio show is that he had likewise predicted the end of the world would have occurred in 1994. It didn’t. The truly remarkable thing is that failed predictions seem to matter little to “true-believers.” Those disappointed Millerites of the nineteenth century would go on to found the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Jehovah Witnesses have increased their membership. And Family Radio’s ministry blossomed after that failed prediction of 1994. Go figure!

I remember during the 1990s, while living in the Korean community, a Korean Protestant preacher, a teenage boy, predicted the Rapture would happen on a certain date. Followers sold their homes, high school students didn’t bother with the SATs, business owners gave up their shops. When the date of the Rapture came and went, and Jesus didn’t appear, a number of suicides were reported, lives were wrecked, and the boy-preacher went missing. Some claimed (did they have any choice?) that he had actually been raptured.

Catholicism is not untouched by this cult-like phenomenon, but it has managed it better. The whole idea of Religious Life, the living of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience by monks and nuns down through the centuries, is a response to that mysterious promise that some day this world will indeed end and God will be all in all. Religious Life is an institutional way of pointing to the fact that there is something beyond this world, something fundamentally mysterious; yet a mystery that seeks our good rather than instill in us a groveling and paralyzing fear.

Although the Church might praise the Baptist as precursor of Christ, it’s significant to point out that it’s not John’s baptism with which we are baptized. Even Jesus doesn’t stay very long after he takes the plunge at the hand of the Baptist, but leaves immediately for the desert – a little peace and quiet, perhaps? Commentators are hard-pressed here: they suggest John’s baptism initiated Jesus’ public ministry. But isn’t it just as likely that Jesus had had it with John and his ilk, tired of the hackneyed harangue of divine retribution for all the mistakes we’ve made, tired of the repeated predictions of Armageddon, tired of the fear that such prophesying engenders in the impressionable and the innocent.

Having said all that, when the end does come and we’re all raptured in one way or another (they really should find another word), I would really like to know how Mr. Campion and Family Radio had invested their assets - and whose name was on that life insurance policy. Matter of fact, if Mr. Campion reads this before May 21st, I’d challenge him to put his money where his mouth is and, if he really believes what he preaches, to put my name down as beneficiary – and I promise to speak only nicely of him from May 22nd on.

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