I love the Leonardo DaVinci's painting of John the Baptist depicted here. It is assumed to be DaVinci's final painting, around 1516. While so many of us reach for the ultimate, John the Baptist was quite satisfied with being the forerunner, the penultimate. We share the same role. But while we flail about trying to grasp the ultimate, here is John in DaVinci's painting, gently smiling and pointing to an a transcendent reality beyond both himself and us. There is almost a smirk in his smile, as if he is trying to explain something humorous that we just don't get. The dark background can represent not so much the absence of place, but the fact that this can be any place, and any time. Being relieved of the role of savior, John happily proclaims, that one is coming even mightier than he (Mark 1).
We are not easily satisfied by less than ultimate things. We want all that we can now. We are an impatient people. All through the day we are bombarded by requests that we become avaricious and have all our desires sown up. In relationships, in politics, in business practices, in our materialism, and our intellectual understanding we do not like the penultimate.
But the penultimate is all that we can have.
For those without faith, the ultimate, the sense of completion and arrival, is a hound that pursues and nips at the heels, always convincing us that there is more to grasp.
For those with faith, we often stumble into the impatient way seeking and attempt to grasp the ultimate. Advent is a season to be satisfied with the less-than-ultimate, the "already/not yet" nature of God's reign, the penultimate. This grasping for the ultimate is something even Jesus was unwilling to do (Phil 2). When we claim to have achieved the final answer on matters of faith, we claim to have grasped something of God's which Jesus himself was unwilling to grasp. The things that are ultimate are of God. So as Bonhoeffer warns, the "destruction of the penultimate seriously harms the ultimate" we potentially eliminate the path of a life of "grace and faith."
My church is caught up in questioning issues of human sexuality. Seeking to understand what scripture instructs is an appropriate act of faith. Seeking to grasp the ultimate and final word on human sexuality is not. Just a brief view of church history tells the repeating story of deliberation and discernment which is merely overturned by the generations that follow. Remembered by generations that follow one after another are the legacies of faithfulness, lives of grace and commitment to the cross, merciful acts and waging peace. The edicts and decisions are not.
Does there come a time in faithful discernment when we say, "we cannot figure this out" and discernment calls for acceptance of what is incomplete and penultimate? John is the penultimate prophet of the church. The church too, needs to reclaim the ministry of John the Baptist, peacefully relieved to not have to be the bearer of eternal and ultimate truths.