The Birth of John the Baptist


The Birth of John the Baptist

I wonder if you’re enjoying the summer? ‘Summer’ I hear you say, ‘what summer?!’ Well, today is Midsummer Day, according to mediaeval tradition. Today, the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, is seen as the midpoint of the year, the midsummer feast. Well I suppose we can hope for more sunshine in the second half of this year than in the first! Last night, of course, was St John’s Eve.

Which might remind us of the fact that in 1867 the Russian composer and frequently inebriated Modest Mussorgsky wrote his infamous ‘St John’s Night on a Bare Mountain’. Mussorgsky’s nocturne is set on June 23rd, the eve of the feastday of the birth of John the Baptist. Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was not a particularly pleasant character and it may well have been after a drunken evening with a copy of Nikolai Gogol’s collection of short stories entitled Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka on his lap, that Mussorgsky wrote this famous, but strange and sinister piece of music. Everyone knows it from Disney’s Fantasia of course. But this is no Mickey Mouse story.

‘St John’s Eve’, written in 1831 is the second story in Gogol’s collection and tells of two lovers, Petro and Pidorka who are parted by the girl’s father, Korzh. Petro then meets Basavriuk, who is said to be the devil, who leads him to gold, but Petro can only claim it by finding a fern that blooms on St John’s Eve, and by killing a child, which he does. The lovers marry, but Pidorka consults a witch; the child Petro murdered to get the treasure returns to haunt him, and eventually Petro is carried off by the devil. Pidorka eventually goes on a pilgrimage, but everyone leaves the village because the devil and the evil spirits cannot be exorcised.

We might not wish to associate John the Baptist with a story such as this, nor even with death, but within the Russian Orthodox tradition, he is said to have descended into the realm of the dead and preached the advent of Christ. John is also said to appear to those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ, just before they die, giving a final opportunity to be saved. Consequently Orthodox churches often display an icon of John prominently and Tuesdays are dedicated to his memory. Thus we can understand how the night before his festival becomes a night of necromancy and witchcraft (as Halloween, the night before All Saints’ Day in Western Tradition has become).

It’s all quite interesting, and a million miles from the story of John, born to Elizabeth and Zechariah, two good and holy people. But even the true story captivates: I went to a school assembly on Friday that featured a talking head of John the Baptist, artfully resting on a platter – a child concealed in a cardboard box – let it be said – but the head of John the Baptist asked the children all kinds of pertinent questions about the life and ministry of John the Baptist. This was highly amusing, because perhaps, like all the best humour, it was on the edge – on the edge of what is acceptable.

Oscar Wilde got it wrong in 1896, when he premiered his play Salome in Paris. His text became the basis for Richard Strauss’ opera of the same title. Wilde’s version of the story of the last days of John’s life, begins with John in prison, guarded in solitary confinement. Salome, Herod’s daughter, appears and persuades a soldier called Narraboth to let her speak to John. John denounces Herod and his wife Herodias for their adultery, and when he realises who Salome is, he rejects her. She in turn tries to kiss him, and it becomes clear that she is obsessed with him. Narraboth is horrified by all this and kills himself. John tells Salome of Christ, and urges her to turn to Christ and repent.

Then follows a banquet, at which Salome dances for Herod, but only after he has sworn to give her anything as a present. Without direct reference to her mother, she duly asks for John’s head, which delights Herodias and appals Herod. He tries to offer even half his kingdom, but she is relentless, and he feels forced to oblige. John is duly executed and his head is brought in on a platter. Salome kisses the lips of the dead John, just as she had tried to do while he was still alive. Herod is so jealous and appalled that he has Salome killed on the spot.

And so ends the light opera that is Salome…

* * *

Integrity: it is an interesting commodity. It can be bought and sold these days. But it is becoming increasingly rare. And if ever there was anyone who epitomized integrity it was John the Baptist. Born as a gift to the world, to proclaim the coming of the Messiah – a role he fulfilled to the praise of Christ himself, John preached repentance and baptized those who wanted to turn away from sin and be cleansed. John sought no material reward, lived simply and was generally considered weird by those who knew him. Even if, as some have argued, he was at least loosely connected with the Dead Sea Scrolls community at Qumraan, that community itself was reclusive, separate from the values and lifestyles of its age. And when John had fulfilled his proclamatory rôle: a voice preparing a highway for the Messiah in the wilderness, even then he continued to speak with a moral voice. So whether we put any store by his later associations with the supernatural, or the slightly odd diet and clothing with which the Bible associates him, whatever we make of that, we must remember him primarily as a messenger: a messenger of vision and truth.

We also remember him as a martyr, someone who was judicially but unjustly murdered for saying or believing inconvenient things. There is something wrong with the world when integrity gets you into trouble. And something hopeless when it gets you killed. There is a supreme irony in the fact that John, often referred to as the last of the line of prophets – the Captain of Prophets - it was he who despite proclaiming the hope of Israel, soon became the victim of the depressing, despair-inducing self-centred, corrupt system of governance which was in so much need of liberation.

Corruption is something we British like to think of as a disease that other nations have. But one wonders what an awkward, disreputable, annoying character like John the Baptist would have to say to us today. What would he make of the Leveson Enquiry? What would he have made of all those self-important people, in journalism and politics who seem to think that neither law, morality or even common sense apply to them? What would he make of a climate in which integrity, political or personal, can be bought and sold for financial gain – financial gain that begins with the influence exerted between politicians and Media moghuls and ends with the influence exerted through television and newsprint on the population?

John is the patron saint of not only motorways, bird dealers and the knights of Malta, he is also the patron saint of spasms, apparently. So he is perhaps an appropriate saint to remember as we watch the news made having fits about who said what to whom about what and whether it was illegal or simply dodgy or not. And that appears to be the level the Leveson Enquiry is working on: was this action or relationship between X and Y – was it illegal, ill-advised, or just dodgy. It’s the new word progression, like good, better or best.

Bad, worse, or worst.
Dodgy, ill-advised, or illegal.
This is the word game our politicians and media owners have been playing, and have been sucking folk in at every level.
Phone-hacking - dodgy, ill-advised or illegal?
Doing deals with Murdoch - dodgy, ill-advised or illegal?
Borrowing someone’s horse - dodgy, ill-advised or illegal?

What a mess.

Transparency International UK, a watchdog organization with a particular interest in corruption have written a report at the end of last year in which they say this:

The relationship between the Murdoch empire and UK politicians has now been widely-acknowledged as unhealthy for democracy. Such a high concentration of ownership of the media, and the possibility of cross-media ownership, creates an environment in which corruption can thrive and those who seek to prevent it or hold others accountable for it are at best ignored and at worst subject to sustained media attack. TI-UK recommends that mechanisms be put in place that prevent a concentration of ownership that can provide an environment that is conducive to corruption. This would require a change from the current situation.

They go on to directly suggest that as the media is a key pillar of national integrity, it is imperative that media owners are fit and proper people. They recommend that those who are majority owners of media companies, or significant minority owners of particularly influential media companies, should be subject to a ‘fit and proper person’ test of some kind.

How one might do that may throw up its own problems, but it is nevertheless clear that a responsible and ethical media is a key pillar in a state’s national integrity system. Even if a minority of the media fabricates stories, vilifies innocent or vulnerable people or distorts political decision-making, then these pillars can shake or even tumble. And it can both create and sustain an underlying problem of systemic corruption in a state. The phone hacking scandal revealed the willingness of certain journalists to bribe police officers; similarly, some editorial patterns suggest the willingness of some media to promote views that may be in the commercial interest of their owners but which may not satisfy independent scrutiny.

All of this needs to be said against the background of the popular and dearly held conviction that in Britain we have and desire to hold onto a free press; and that our judicial and parliamentary systems are internationally respected and held as exemplary throughout the world. But that is why, of course, the implication that there is something rotten at the core of the state is something which should trouble us greatly.

If John the Baptist were wandering our streets proclaiming good news, and baptizing people in the Thames in front of the Palace of Westminster, he would be saying awkward things about corruption. And I also suspect that, as he did to Herod, he would also be saying some awkward things about the meaning and conduct of marriage.

He might not lose his head in this day and age, but suffer the modern equivalent: to be vilified by the Press. Villified perhaps by a press who have too much of a vested interest, and in whom too much vested interest is placed, such that the true pillar of integrity, John the Baptist himself, would be brought down under the ensuing onslaught.

On might spare a thought for Lord Justice Leveson himself, who has a very difficult task, which involve him challenging and upsetting some very powerful, sometimes unpleasant people. And since he is not presiding over a Court, but an Enquiry, some of the usual tools of his trade, and the safeguards he can fall back on, are not in place. He, a bit like John the Baptist, is being vilified for asking awkward questions.

We need to carve a new highway through the mire of deceit and corruption in which our highly respected press and politicians have become bogged down. And we need nothing more nor less than the simple virtue of integrity to which to turn, and none other than the patron saint of motorways to prepare the way.


The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 24/06/12