John the Baptist: his mouth be true as time

Anton Raphael Mengs,"John the Baptist" (1760)

Anton Raphael Mengs,”John the Baptist” (1760)

Spiritual Sunday

To amplify today’s Advent reading I share Lucille Clifton’s version of John the Baptist. In her eyes, John is a black Baptist minister with an Afro.

The Gospel reading is from Matthew 3:1-12:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Clifton’s poem resonates with the enthusiasm and hopefulness of the “Black Pride” movement of the early 1970s, when the poem was written. Clifton’s John is preaching the social gospel.

The message is even timelier today given the high incarceration rates of young black men. Clifton is well aware that Jesus is a person of color:

john

By Lucille Clifton

somebody coming in blackness
like a star
and the world be a great bush
on his head
and his eyes be fire
in the city
and his mouth be true as time

he be calling the people brother
even in the prison
even in the jail

I’m just only a Baptist preacher
somebody bigger than me coming
in blackness like a star

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  • Sue Schmidt

    I love Lucille Clifton’s cadences. Her poetry is always beautifully provocative. One of the things I loved about this poem were the lines “blackness coming like a star”.

    I was at a lecture by Earl Lewis, the current president of the Anrew W. Mellon Foundation. His topic was Slavery, Humor and Mental Health. Along the way, he talked about the importance of redeeming the word “black” from all of its negative connotations (e.g. blackmail, black cat, black sheep). Clifton’s poem does this exquisitely.

  • Robin

    I agree, Sue. To say, “the Light of the World is black” bends the mind in wonderful ways.

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