ADVENT 3: John and John and John
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Three men called John: Our second reading came from John the Gospel writer; our Advent theme for this Sunday is John the Baptist and today is the feast day of St John of the Cross.
John the Gospel writer – producer of some of the most beautiful and profound spiritual writings in the Bible;
John the Baptist – precursor of Jesus, preacher to the people, ascetic, imprisoned, mistreated, murdered, a man who came out of the wilderness to lead the Jewish people from their exile in a dark desert of misused and dis-used belief back home into the light of God’s love. John of the Cross, writer of some of the most beautiful and profound spiritual writings in the Christian canon, follower of Jesus, preacher to the people, ascetic, imprisoned, mistreated, hounded to death, a man who came to bring his monastic order out of a dark wilderness of excess and luxury so that they might mirror the light of God’s love.
John of the Cross was born in 1542, one of three sons. His mother, a weaver of Moorish descent was widowed young. His father was the son of wealthy merchants who disowned him when he married beneath his station. John’s mother was very poor, but she worked hard and her sons received a rudimentary education. While still a child John worked in a hospital for those dying of incurable, probably venereal, diseases.
His care and compassion, love of song and music, and of ways to cheer up the despondent patients, brought him to the attention of the hospital chaplain who sponsored his education at the Jesuit College in Medina. In 1563 John joined the Carmelite order and spent four years at the University of Salamanca. In 1567 he met St Teresa of Avila, 25 years his senior. John was a short man, yet Teresa was deeply impressed by her ‘little friar’ who she described as: ‘small in stature but great in God’s eyes’. He joined with her in the reformation of the Carmelite Order. Both nuns and monks had grown quite lax in their ways – convents had become a home from home for rich spinsters and monasteries seemed far more concerned with amassing riches than giving alms.
Teresa sought for and eventually received permission to begin a new reformed branch of the Order. She began by building up reformed convents, John started a reformed monastery but politics swung against them, the unreformed order came back into ecclesiastical power and in 1577 John was kidnapped and imprisoned in the large monastery in Toledo. Kept in a tiny room that used to be a lavatory, half-starved, half-clothed, unwashed he was held for nine months and was beaten regularly by the monks.
At some point he was allowed writing instruments. One day he heard a drunken voice outside the monastery walls singing a popular song about unhappy love. Something in the sadness and beauty of its worldly lyrics set off his own inspiration and in a few months he wrote almost all his poetry.
His escape was as dramatic as his capture – twisting ropes from his blankets and tunic he let himself down from a dizzy height into the darkness.
Once out, life was still not easy. Sometimes the reformed order were in political favour, sometimes they were not. From the start John’s poetry proved to be extremely popular. In the good times he wrote commentaries on his verses, explaining their spiritual significance – but he never finished them, in one case writing 500 pages of prose on 10 lines of poetry.
In the bad times he was again hunted and mistreated, but he never stopped working with the poor and the sick and was much loved by the people. Eventually, in 1591, on 14 December, he died of disease and sickness in a hostile monastery that shoved him in a corner uncared for and untreated.
So what is it about this stooped little Spanish friar that meant that he was recognised as a saint in his own lifetime, canonised in 1726 and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1926? Firstly there is evidence of the care he had for others,
then there is the hardship he faced for his faith, the profound love he had for Scripture and for God and finally there are his writings, especially his poetry.
Federico Garcia Lorca declared that the most renowned Spanish poets must yield the laurel wreath to St John of the Cross. John’s verse has been an influence and inspiration to centuries of Spanish poets, including Lorca himself.
But there is more to it than literary appreciation. There is in St John’s melding of his favourite Old Testament book, the Song of Songs, and the street ballads of love and loss he heard all around, a profoundly gentle, profoundly simple, profoundly mystical and profoundly piercing evocation of the continual, constant, for ever giving, forever forgiving love of God for each one of us.
It is not just God’s love for us that John portrays but also our own rising, diminishing, wavering, quavering, strengthening, meandering, glimpsing, sometimes hopeless, sometimes hope-filled relationship with God.
John is moved by delight and love to express himself by way of poetry. Reading his writings it is hard to feel that any writer has ever found a richer woodland of delight or wasteland of darkness than St John discovered in his own soul, often at altitudes quite beyond poetry. Although his verse is about the heights and depths of the love and love-longing between God and man, he is sparing in his use of the world ‘God’. He knows that he is talking about a relationship that is beyond description. He needs a metaphor that he feels we can comprehend and finds it in what he considers to be the best thing we can know – human love. So it is to the Song of Songs that he turns for inspiration, along with those love ballads of his own countrymen.
His verses are filled with narrative and imagery based on the pursuit of courtship, the promise of betrothal, the fruition of marriage, the hopes and fears of the lover and the beloved. He uses language that may have raised eyebrows in the convent and giggles in the sanctuary, but he cannot allow what we might call the ‘erotic’ to be simply pinned down in flesh. His delight in the love of God, encompasses every aspect of who we are – physical as well as spiritual or intellectual.
There are two things you are most likely to know about St John of the Cross. The first is the drawing by him, preserved in a convent in Avila, and parodied by Salvador Dali in his slick, sentimentalised painting, Christ of St John of the Cross.
St John’s drawing shows an emaciated, agonised Christ pinned tight by heavy nails to the wood of the cross, blood flowing freely from his wounds. What is unusual about his depiction, and it has been said that this is the first such image to be found in Christian art, is that it shows Christ not from the perspective of spectators or penitents looking up at the cross but of God himself looking down at the tormented, humiliating death of his own Son. It is not a pretty picture but carries in its rough lines some understanding of the depth of God’s own sacrifice for the sake of his love for us.
The second thing most often known about St John is the phrase ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ which has made its way into common English parlance. It tends to be taken to mean a time where all is dark, blank, lost and lonely, a struggle, physical as well as spiritual that leads to fresh vision and fresh hope. That is, of course, only a smidgeon of what John means. He is talking about something highly complex, personal and intuitive, something philosophical and gut-wrenchingly real that is felt in the deepest corners of our soul, which is why he uses poetry to describe it.
The key image is night – both the darkness of John’s prison cell and a time of mystery, a time where a journey begins, where darkness loses its menace as the lover trusts the beloved and finds a light in her heart that leads to them to be together. Together in a union that is so beyond anything we can imagine that John expresses it as a wound – the intensity of love is so painful.
His idea of the ‘dark night’ is as one way in which a person can grow closer to God. He is clear that it is not an experience that everyone requires to meet with God, but he tries to explain it for those who will go through it. Part of what he describes is a sense of absence – a period when we might feel abandoned by God – a little akin to the moments in that little verse ‘Footprints’ when during the tough times in our lives we only see one set of footprints walking on the shore.
What John is talking about is not negativity but absence: a time when all goes blank for us and in doing so we get a chance to both be open to God’s promptings and to work out what really matters. What comes out of the dark night is not some spiritual aloofness but a way of being more alive to God’s love, to the wonder of creation and to human relationships. In essence the fruit of such a process is to be found in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. It is the spirit of God coming upon a person, anointing them to bring the good news of God’s love that is liberating, healing, energising, comforting, creative, an expression of the deep, enduring, passionate, excited love of a bride and bridegroom.
John of the Cross is the right saint to commemorate during the dark winter days and night, of Advent the waiting wilderness time before the love of God bursts into the world in the mewling vulnerability of the tiny Christ child.
His poetry expresses beautifully and truthfully the hope we are looking for during these grey days, the hope we can glimpse far off in the golden glow of light that surrounds a child, the hope that calls us home even as we enter the stable and find ourselves wrapped in the warmth of that light. John is the poet of Advent, the poet of the darkness of knowing, waiting, believing, doubting, expecting in hope rather than cold certainty. John the Baptist is the sign that the wait will soon be over, his act of cleansing in the Jordan brings people into readiness for the light. John of the Cross is the new Baptist, constantly encouraging us to believe, to make space in our hearts for the possibility that no matter what absence we feel, God loves us totally, unconditionally and eternally.