Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 3:1-17) transports me to the mythological underworld river of Acheron, which the war hero Aeneas is seeking to cross in his quest to get some counsel and confirmation from his deceased father. Acheron is the river of woe, the river of anger, and is not easily forded. When the ferryman resists, we hear Aeneas recite one of the Aenid’s famous lines, flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo: If I cannot deflect the will of Heaven, I shall move Hell (Acheron was also known as the region of hell). He is determined to hear his father’s voice. Playing on this myth, Dante would later write about Acheron as a heavy river of pitch black, where people who failed to make important life choices are trapped, consigned to tread the freezing water constantly, never reaching a destination, forever being bitten by worms and insects and bees. This river of anger that must be crossed if one is to connect with a departed loved one is indeed maddening, in all senses of the word.
It strikes me as interesting to ponder whether the gospel writers were also readers of the literature of their day, and if so, did they read Virgil and Plato and others who wrote about the woeful Acheron River, the place where the indecisive had to tread water for eternity on the edge of hell? I wonder about it especially when reading again the story of John the Baptist at the river Jordan. This passage sure sounds like something out of one of Homer’s epics. This is the first story that comes out of the shoot after the story of God’s birth into the world. It is full of fury and woe, as Jesus’ elder cousin prepares his entrance into public life by shouting woes on the religious folk and ferrying sinners into the river of repentance. The religious leaders are not ready to make that penitent decision of faith – you get the idea that they are just coming around to get a glimpse of the madman across the water. There he is, wearing his camel hair suit and eating bugs, shouting angry insults as a way of preparing the world for the incarnation of love itself. And you can almost hear the elite ignoring his call. Get a load of him, he’s so insane. Get your coat dear, it looks like rain.
It may seem strange to have such a picture of madness – both in the sense of anger and craziness – coming right on the heels of the Christmas story. Here we are in the fourth week of Advent, the week we light the candle of love, and we tend to get even more sentimental than usual this time of year. But John the Baptist’s story reminds us that the love of God is way deeper than sentimentality. It is a maddening love that demands a decision. It is a love that brings us to the shores of Acheron and Jordan, to the edge of hell, where we have to decide to sink or swim in the sacred waters of God’s passion. John, like the Acheron’s ferryman, initially resisted and refused Jesus’ request to enter. But Jesus, like Aeneas, was determined to wade in and hear his Father’s voice of counsel and confirmation. If we decide to follow Jesus into the water, that decision may even lead us to follow Aeneas and storm the underworld, because we love people so much we want to rescue them from any number of the the hellish despairs they experience. We might follow the Star with the Wise Men, and dream impossible dreams as we fight for the right without question or pause, willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause. It is only a love laced with anger at the world’s threats and the world’s violence that will make such a march. It is a march of madness. It is crazy love. It is the love that Jesus had when he descended into the cold waters with cousin John. Who knows, he might have even quoted Aeneas when he immersed himself into solidarity with sinners, if I cannot deflect the will of heaven, I shall move hell.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.