THE FRIEND OF THE BRIDEGROOM: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Forerunner. By Sergius Bulgakov; translated by Boris Jakim, (Eerdmans Press, 255 Jefferson Ave. S.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49503, 2003) PB $28.
The classic Deisis icon depicts the intercession of the Blessed Mother and John the Baptist. With Christ firmly at the middle, the Deisis represents the consummation of the old covenant and the beginning of the new, the first fulfilled by the mission of John, the second inaugurated by the fiat of the Theotokos: as the Father asked her to give the Son natural human life in the humble stall of Bethlehem, he asks John wash him in the baptismal waters of the Jordan.
Not many appreciate this relationship between Mary and John as well as did Sergius Bulgakov, arguably the greatest theologian to come out of modern-day Russia. Born in 1871, Bulgakov left the recently “founded” Soviet Union in 1923 and spent the rest of his life at the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, dying there in 1944. Originally composed in 1927, this volume still stands as an amazing treatment of John the Baptist’s life and his role in bringing all Christians into closer friendship with the divine Bridegroom.
The beauty of this book is how it opens up the admittedly minimal biblical information surrounding the enigmatic figure of John. Each of the ten chapters expounds on a scriptural scene by using the Church’s other means of venerating John: patristic theology, liturgy, iconography, and hymnody. The figure who emerges is simultaneously the first friend of Jesus and the first hereditary Levite to leave behind Hebraic law, ritual, and temple, the fulfillment of Elijah and the beginning of a new way. But why does John never follow Jesus? Bulgakov reflects on this hard truth and, in typical fashion, maintains that John “did not need to be instructed in this mystery, as the apostles did in the course of the Savior’s earthly life… He lived out his days, retaining his awareness of himself as the Forerunner, knowing that ‘He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease’ [and] these words express the whole power of the Forerunner’s feat, his self-renunciation, his will to kenosis, his limitless but active humility” (73-74). The lowliness of the Forerunner is what ushers in the full emptying of the God-Man; John’s devotion came through his disappearing.
The height of such discipleship was realized while in Herod’s prison and, as Bulgakov sees it, John’s humility here helped to prepare the way for Christ’s abandonment on the Cross. Such a trial “is the highest expression of God’s love and respect for his creation” (93) in that it “allows” the creature to experience what it would mean to live only by and for itself. Only here can God assume all of humanity, reaching through its infirmity to its very finitude.
Such healing began in John’s baptism, a baptism that lasted until the descent at Pentecost and this becomes the framework in which these and other reflections are given. One of Bulgakov’s richest meditations here is when he turns to John’s encounter with the feminine. Mary’s divine and thus universal maternity is starkly contrasted with the only instance of “female rage” recorded in the Christian scriptures. The seductiveness and revenge of Herodias and her daughter not only brought about the end of John’s earthly life but remain an expression of how it is “not natural for a woman’s spirit to resist the summoning Lord” (123).
During Advent it is right to center one’s spiritual reading around the life and person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, while Lent is a fitting time to pick up a work dedicated to seeing Christ through the eyes of John the Baptist and one will find no better single volume than this. Bulgakov’s ability to draw the reader into the most profound theological depths is uncanny and Boris Jakim and Eerdmans Press are to be thanked for making his thought alive and accessible today.
Fr. David Meconi, S.J.