Letters to Peregrinus #62 - On Insurrection

“The Baptism of Jesus” (published 28 June 2006), image painted by Donald Jackson for the St. John’s Bible (https://saintjohnsbible.org/Products/GA029000NF/Baptism-Of-Jesus).[1] In this Bible, this image sits as the Frontispiece[2] to Mark’s Gospel. See Mark 1:9-11.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1881-1955)[3] – “What the future imposes on our present existence is not exactly a feeling of depression; it's rather a sort of seriousness, of detachment, of a broadening, too, of outlook. This feeling, of course, borders on a sort of sadness (the sadness that accompanies every fundamental change); but it leads also to a sort of higher joy . . . I'd call it ‘Nostalgia for the Front’. The reasons, I believe, come down to this: the Front[4] cannot but attract us because it is, in one way, the extreme boundary between what one is already aware of, and what is still in process of formation.”

 Luke 12:49-53 (NJB)
- 49 ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! 50 There is a baptism I must still receive, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 ‘Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on, a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; 53 father opposed to son, son to father, mother to daughter, daughter to mother, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law to mother-in-law.’ [5] [The italics added by the translators.]

Howard Thurman (1899-1981)[6] – “Do what is on fire inside of you. More often than anything else, the world needs persons who are on fire.”
Dear Peregrinus (Wednesday):

I got to thinking how we, in the Catholic liturgical calendar, have as of last Sunday, January 9th, entered “Ordinary Time”.[7] And the feast day that marks its commencement is that of the Baptism, by John, of Jesus in the Jordan River (e.g., Mark 1:9-11).

 9 It was at this time that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. 10 And at once, as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart (εἶδεν σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς[8]) and the Spirit, like a dove, descending on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’* [9]

Surely for Jesus Himself, and certainly for John the Baptist, there was nothing ordinary about that day.

For the latter, the “Dear desire of every nation / Joy of every longing heart”[10] had just walked up to him. John recognized Him – more than just his cousin. “It’s finally time, John.,” Jesus said.

 7 In the course of his preaching he said, ‘After me is coming someone who is more powerful than me, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.* 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’* [11]

Extra-ordinary time; not plain, old ordinary time.[12]

For the former, this was the day, finally the day, when His public ministry was commencing; the “favorable time” (Greek: kairos) when Jesus would start becoming fully what He was for. And what is more, His Father had spoken to Jesus there in a way so intimate that surely it constituted one of the most precious memories Jesus had of His whole earthly life.

 “When I say that it's you that I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”[13]

 Looking closer at this text, Peregrinus, did you notice that “he saw the heavens torn apart”?[14] The standard Greek dictionary of the New Testament (BDAG)[15] defines this verb: “to divide by use of force: to split, divide, separate, tear apart, tear off” something. This verb describes some sort of uprising in Heaven itself (Latin, insurgoere: “to rise, to grow in power; to rouse or bestir one’s self”) that burst through the boundary separating Heaven and Earth.

25 Abraham said, “My son, remember that during your life you had your fill of good things, just as Lazarus his fill of bad. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony.* 26 But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, (καὶ ἐν πᾶσιν τούτοις μεταξὺ ἡμῶν καὶ ὑμῶν χάσμα μέγα ἐστήρικται,[16]) to prevent those who want to cross from our side to yours or from your side to ours.” [17]

I am thinking that there came to pass an insurrection in Heaven, and the Triune God leapt down and presented themselves in unveiled power before us –all three of the Divine Persons! – and the Father speaking as One for Them proclaimed: “This is my Beloved Son; listen to Him!” I recall the lines in Wisdom 18:

14 When peaceful silence lay over all,
and night had run the half of her swift course,
15 down from the heavens, from the royal throne,
leapt your all-powerful Word
like a pitiless warrior into the heart of a land doomed to destruction.
Carrying your unambiguous command like a sharp sword,
16 it stood, and filled the universe with death;
though standing on the earth, it touched the sky. [18]

Peregrinus, it occurs to me, and for the first time, that the “great gulf” affixed between Heaven and Earth was one that we put there, not God. We human beings habitually have sought, even in our Churches, to keep God at bay, at a distance, kept in a safe and manageable place. That is our gulf.

And into that the Divine Trinity tore open a gash. Finally – the Scriptures say “in the fullness of Time” - Heaven had had quite enough of this, of our way of making a mess of things.

And so, the Holy Trinity commenced a holy insurgency.

My heart within me is overwhelmed,
fever grips my inmost being.*
9 I will not give rein to my fierce anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again,
for I am God, not man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I shall not come to you in anger.* [19]

(Did you see that? The divine Trinity feels anger – and it burns hot and fiercely – but the Trinity refuses to come to us in anger. Seems worth us giving it a try, doesn’t it?)

What kinds of things does this insurgency do? St. Paul, that greatest exegete of the personality of Jesus, wrote in one place:

14 Bless your persecutors; never curse them, bless them.* 15 Rejoice with others when they rejoice, and be sad with those in sorrow. 16 Give the same consideration to all others alike. Pay no regard to social standing but meet humble people on their own terms. Do not congratulate yourself on your own wisdom. 17 Never pay back evil with evil, but bear in mind the ideals that all regard with respect.* 18 As much as is possible, and to the utmost of your ability, be at peace with everyone. 19 Never try to get revenge: leave that, my dear friends, to the Retribution.[20] As scripture says: Vengeance is mine—I will pay them back, the Lord promises.* 20 And more: If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink. By this, you will be heaping red-hot coals on his head.* 21 Do not be mastered by evil, but master evil with good. [21] [The italics placed in the text by the translators.]

This was the “fire”[22] about which Jesus spoke with obvious emotion:

49 ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! 50 There is a baptism I must still receive, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! [23]

Perhaps, saying it in another way, the coach Vince Lombardi[24] said:

“Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.”

 This is the real insurrection we need, which St. Paul so beautifully described through that pattern of commands: “bless … rejoice … pay no regard … never pay back evil … bear in mind the ideals … be at peace with everyone”, etc.

However, the fulfilling of these commands has nothing to do with obedience to them, and to him or her who commands them. It has to do with becoming a different kind of person who acts in the world in a way so compelling, so moving, and so convincing, with the result that anyone, young or old, looks at such persons and exclaims: “I want to be like that! Now that is what a human being is and can do!” I think that is part of what John the Baptist meant when he describes his experience of Jesus in the following way:

32 And John declared, ‘I saw the Spirit come down on him like a dove from heaven and rest on him. 33 I did not know him myself, but he who sent me to baptize with water had said to me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit.”* 34 I have seen and I testify that he is the Chosen One of God.’*[25]

Becoming this kind of person – we call such a person “Christ-like”[26] - is what Christians are for; why we exist. Christians are here in this world to learn how to become persons “after God’s own heart”[27] habitually, effortlessly, and serenely.

 As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside that is unique for all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression. [Rogers, Fred. The World According to Mister Rogers (p. 119). Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.]

That’s about it for now, Peregrinus. But as I go, look with me at the painting – a book illustration, really – that I inserted at the top of this letter. (What a treasure, a permanent gift to world culture, is the St. John’s Bible!) Here are three things that I notice in it.

First, we are given clues that John has already baptized Jesus and has pointed Him out to his disciples – “Look! There is the lamb of God.” Done is His work as Baptizer[28] – “He must grow greater; I must grow less.” John has a halo[29] around his head, which means that his sanctity (what the halo represents) has been “achieved.” John had fully done what he was born into the world to do. What else could sanctity mean but that? Jesus said of him, and of no one else: 11 ‘In truth I tell you, of all the children born to women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist….[30] And I notice John’s open hands as he departs, “retires” if you will, holding onto nothing: “Whatsoever I have, and hold on to, /I give it all back to You / and surrender it wholly to be governed by Your Will. / Give me only your love and your grace / and I am rich enough / and I ask for nothing more.”[31]

Second, I notice – so subtle! – how it is John the Baptist who is the foundation of the Church’s mission (see the church building, its arches, sketched there above his head?)! In other words, the point of the Church, when it has not forgotten what it is, is that it points. It is a place in the world that teaches us to recognize God when God reveals Himself inside the ordinary – “There! Look!”. Christians are meant to point! As the text has it:

35 The next day as John stood there again with two of his disciples, Jesus went past, 36 and John looked towards him and said, ‘Look, there is the lamb of God.’[32]

I remember when I was studying in Rome, it startled me to learn that the official “seat” (Greek, cathedra), or home, of the Bishop of Rome (of the Pope) is the church of St. John [the Baptist!] Lateran[33], not St. Peter’s Basilica. By this, I concluded, that the mission of the Pope, and through him of the whole Church, is to continue the mission of John the Baptist! We are meant to be those who recognize God when He is among us, and who point Him out – “God is there! Don’t you see Him? Go there!”

Third, I remember that the landscape through which the river Jordan runs is arid. The earth is bleak, barren. It is a landscape with no hope in it. As John walks away from his life as the Baptizer, as Christ’s Precursor[34], he walks towards his ignominious death at the hand of a petty coward. But the just-baptized Jesus watches him go. See Him standing back there, strong and golden, standing not in the light but as the source of Light? Pay attention to what Jesus does! Jesus (but really what the whole Trinity does in concert) causes the very desert to burst into bloom around John, under his bare feet. The desert becomes verdant, is clothed with beauty, the grasses of the same golden color that Jesus is. It is as if Jesus, as his first miracle (but hidden from us until now) caused the desert to become alive. It is as if God spoke again His word of Creation there, making straight in the desert a glorious highway for … John – “no greater man born of woman.” And I hear the Father’s voice, who had already spoken to/of His beloved Son along the shore of the river, now softly speaking to John as he departs:

10 My lover speaks and says to me,
“Arise, my friend, my beautiful one,
 and come!
 11 For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of pruning the vines has come,
 and the song of the turtledove is heard in our land.
 13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance.
Arise, my friend, my beautiful one,
and come! [35]

Good to have spent some time with you, Peregrinus. I am so glad that our friendship has endured, has deepened, through these long years. Soon enough our own missions in the world will have been accomplished. How I long to hear such words spoken to me someday: “Arise, my friend, my beautiful one, and come.”




[1] “In 1998, Saint John's Abbey (2900 Abbey Plaza, Collegeville, MN 56321) and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. We invite you to explore this work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.”

 [2] The Oxford English Dictionary at “frontispiece” – “An illustration facing the title page of a book or division of a book.”

[3] See the short biography by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker at the American Teilhard Association: https://www.teilharddechardin.org/index.php/biography.

[4] Teilhard in a letter he wrote from “the front” in World War I. And this that Grim and Tucker wrote: “Through these nearly four years of bloody trench fighting Teilhard's regiment fought in some of the most brutal battles at the Marne and Epres in 1915, Nieuport in 1916, Verdun in 1917 and Chateau Thierry in 1918. Teilhard himself was active in every engagement of the regiment for which he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1921. Throughout his correspondence he wrote that despite this turmoil, he felt there was a purpose and a direction to life more hidden and mysterious than history generally reveals to us.”

[5] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Lk 12:49–53.

[6] For an illuminating testimony to the significance of Howard Thurman, see this by Rich Barlow: https://www.bu.edu/articles/2020/who-was-howard-thurman/.

[7] This “piece” of Ordinary Time stretches this year from January 10th to March 2nd (Ash Wednesday). What is meant by “Ordinary Time” is all of the days of the 365 days in the year that lie outside of the two special cycles: (1) Advent-Christmas Day-Christmastide (the “Twelve Days”), and (2) Lent-Holy Triduum (the last day of which is Easter)-Eastertide (always 49 days long, with the 50th day being the feast of Pentecost).

[8] Barbara Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, Fifth Revised Edition. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014), Mk 1:10.

* Is 63:11, 19; Jn 1:32–34 •9:7; Ps 2:7; Is 42:1 ‖Mt 4:1–11 ‖Lk 4:1–13

[9] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Mk 1:9–11.

[10] From the hymn “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” by Charles Wesley (1707-1788).

* Jn 1:27

* Jn 1:26, 33; Ac 1:5; 11:16

[11] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Mk 1:7–8.

[12] The Oxford English Dictionary at the 15th century adjective “ordinary” – “Belonging to the regular or usual order or course of things; having a place in a fixed or regulated sequence; occurring in the course of regular custom or practice; normal; customary; usual.”

 [13] By Fred McFeely Rogers; that is, “Mister Rogers” (1928-2003).

 [14] The different, mainline English translations of this Greek present, passive participle of skidzo have: “being torn open” (NABRE, ESV, NIV, and others); “opened” (KJV, RSV, and others); “splitting apart” (NET, NLT), “torn apart” (NRSV, NJB), “rent asunder” (ASV 1901).

[15] σχίζω fut. σχίσω; 1 aor. ἔσχισα. Pass.: fut. 3 sg.; aor. ἐσχίσθην; pf. ptc. pl. ἐσχισμένοι Is 36:22 (Hom. Hymns et al.; pap, LXX, Test12Patr; JosAs 14:3; ParJer 2:5; Philo; Jos., Ant. 8, 207; 20, 97) - ① to divide by use of force, split, divide, separate, tear apart, tear off lit. τὶ someth. [William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 981.]

* 6:24–25

[16] Barbara Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, Fifth Revised Edition. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014), Lk 16:26.

[17] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Lk 16:25–26.

[18] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Wis 18:14–16.

* Dt 32:36; Is 54:8; Jr 31:20

* Nb 23:19+

[19] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Ho 11:8–9.

* Si 7:34

* Pr 3:7; Pr 3:4; 2 Co 8:21; 1 Th 5:15; 1 P 3:9

[20] Concerning the concept of “retribution”, or of “The Retribution”: “RETRIBUTION [נָקָם naqam, שׁוּב shuv, שִׁלַּם shillam; ἀνταπόδομα antapodoma]. Retribution means that God gives to individuals and communities a degree of suffering that somehow corresponds to their sin or offense. The idea of retribution serves as a cornerstone for the central theological claim that God governs the world with justice.” [David Penchansky, “Retribution,” The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009) 781.]

* Lv 19:18; Pr 20:22; 1 Co 6:6–7

* Gn 50:19; Dt 32:35; Pr 25:21–22+

[21] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Ro 12:14–21.

Richard N. Longenecker puts it well: “This list of admonitions was not given as a “checklist” of Christian duties, which are to be expressed in some legalistic fashion. Rather, these exhortations function as an explication of what it means to love genuinely (i.e., “without hypocrisy”) as one of God’s children. The focus of a Christian’s attention is not on some list of responsibilities or duties. The Christian’s focus must always be on the personal relationship with God that God himself has brought about through the person and work of Christ Jesus and the ministry of God’s Spirit—with all these seven listed matters flowing quite “naturally” (or, rather, “supernaturally”) from the relationship that God has established between himself and his people.” [Richard N. Longenecker, The Epistle to the Romans: A Commentary on the Greek Text, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), 937.]

[22] Remember how we contemporaries, who have lived long under electric lights that turn darkness into light, assume that was Jesus means by that “fire already burning” is that power which consumes and destroys what it burns. Perhaps we should pay more attention to how in a pre-electric time, fire was the means of light! In another place, Jesus explicitly says “You are the light of the world.” Perhaps this is the “fire” that Jesus wishes were already burning.

[23] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Lk 12:49–50.

[24] About Vince Lombardi (b. 1913; d. 1970) – “The oldest of five children, Vince Lombardi was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 11, 1913. As the son of an Italian immigrant, Lombardi was raised in a strict Catholic household. In 1928, at the age of 15, Lombardi entered the Cathedral College of Immaculate Conception to study for the priesthood. Deciding on a different career path two years later, Lombardi transferred to St. Francis Preparatory and starred as fullback on the football team. Upon graduation, Lombardi attended Fordham University [Jesuit] and starred on the football team, where he was a member of Fordham’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite”. After graduating magna cum laude from Fordham in 1937, Lombardi attended Law school in the evenings while working for a finance company during the day. Lombardi once again shifted gears, deciding to take a teaching and assistant football coaching position at St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey. During his successful 8-year stint at St. Cecelia, Lombardi married Marie Planitz in 1940 (with whom he had two children, Vince Jr. and Susan). Lombardi joined the coaching staff at his alma mater, Fordham University, in 1947 and enjoyed a two-year run there. But Lombardi couldn’t resist the opportunity to continue his coaching career at West Point in 1949, while learning under the direction of the great Red Blaik. It was during this time as an assistant to Blaik that Lombardi identified and developed what became the hallmark of his great teams……simplicity and execution.”

* 3:34; Is 11:2; 61:1; Mt 3:16par.; 1 S 9:17

* 3:5; Mt 3:11i; Is 42:1; Lk 9:35; 23:35; Mt 4:18–20par.

[25] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Jn 1:32–34.

[26] It is a subtle but important point that what is meant by being “Christ-like” is not about us being another Christ! There is only one of Him. What it means is for us to become the kind of person Jesus Christ was and Who proved to us that being like this is possible through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. See, for example, Romans 5 – “Not only that; let us exult, too, in our hardships, understanding that hardship develops perseverance, and perseverance develops a tested character, something that gives us hope, and a hope which will not let us down, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” [The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Ro 5:3–5.]

[27] See 1 Samuel 13:14 – “Yahweh has discovered a man after his own heart and designated him as leader of his people….” [The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), 1 Sa 13:14.]

[28] In Mark’s Gospel, the Evangelist makes it particularly clear that the work of John the Baptizer – the Precursor and Announcer – was over as soon as Jesus commenced His public ministry – “After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee.” [The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Mk 1:14.] The work of the Precursor and the Messiah did not coincide according to Mark.

[29] The Oxford English Dictionary at “halo” – “The circle or disk of light with which the head is surrounded in representations of Christ and the Saints; a nimbus.”

[30] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Mt 11:11.

[31] These lines from the famous “Suscipe” prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

[32] The New Jerusalem Bible (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday, 1990), Jn 1:35–36.

[33] “Founded during the fourth century in honour of St. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, St John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano) is the Cathedral of Rome and the most important of the four major basilicas. It is known as St John Lateran Archbasilica, as it is considered the mother church of the Roman Catholic faithful.” Hmm. Well, when I visited that Archbasilica, the great bronze image (some 8-feet in height), located in the floor in front of the door into the crypt, and right in front of the high altar, is of John the Baptist, not of John the Evangelist.

[34] The Oxford English Dictionary at “precursor” – “A person who, or thing, which precedes another as a forerunner or presage; a person who, or thing, which heralds the approach of another; (now esp.) a thing that comes before another of the same kind as a forerunner, predecessor, or prototype.”

[35] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), So 2:10–13.

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