In this season, Orthodox Christians celebrate a feast of the Conception of St. John the Baptist. And personally, I find the timing providential.
I understood why as I tuned into NPR last week and heard that since there are “only 49 days left until the midterm elections,” a program I enjoy has been suspended to make way for another one that’ll feature daily campaign updates through election night.
If I’ve done my math, we now have “only 44 days” to go! That’s four days longer than Christ was in the desert being tempted by the devil, and four days longer than Noah took refuge in the Ark. It’s going to be a long 44 days.
Days of mutual slander (or libel, if in writing). And days of battling what I call “the apotheosis of politics” — the delusion that the fate of America (if not humanity) rests on the outcome of elections.
We don’t have to be political junkies. All we need do is breathe the air, and it’s like an allergen: the fear and anger, stemming from a notion that the battle between good and evil, darkness and light, is coming to our ballots.
Which is where this feast of St. John comes in. Because it presents us with someone who’ll enter this world calling for hope and change, or a return to God and family values, or (insert your own, preferred rhetoric here) — BUT, who’ll do so in a way and from such a place that none of these messages will be twisted or distorted by hypocrisy.
In John, we’ll find a missing ingredient for how to turn the world right-side up again: because he first subdues his own passions in the wilderness before ever preaching to others.
In biblical spirituality, the desert isn’t a place of tranquil retreat, but of warfare with demons. This will be John’s school, so that when he emerges, having conquered the passions, he won’t be sharing any ideology — but rather a practice and experience he knows firsthand: “Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand.”
Unlike proverbial hypocrites, John will practice what he preaches. This is important given how regularly those in positions of moral authority seem to fall over immoral behavior, whether clergy or politicians.
No one would ever have to #MeToo about John the Baptist. He won’t be hobbled by allegations as he speaks against Herod’s violation of marriage. He also won’t be interested in power, as Herod himself must see.
He’ll recognize how small power is. The only power he’ll seek is God’s power ruling him. This will come from the desert, and lessons learned there about the battle taking place beneath the surface of each of us.
This feast of St. John invites us not to mistake activism for asceticism, nor abandon spiritual warfare for the false apotheosis of politics. This feast invites us to go into the desert, and prepare in our own hearts a path made straight.