Nativity of John the Baptist

You shall be called the Prophet of the Most High

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  June 24, 2018

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill
Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:
‘He must increase and I diminish still,
Until his sun illuminates my night.’
So John the Baptist pioneers our path,
Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,
Unlatches the last doorway into faith,
And makes one inner space an everywhere. (…)
So keep his fires burning through this night,
Beacons and gateways for the Child of light.

(M. Guite, St. John the Baptist: St. John’s Eve)


Living in Quebec, we think of this weekend as “La Fete Nationale”.  And if you’re not particularly into Quebec nationalism, it also falls around the summer solstice: long beautiful sunny days, and bonfires by night!  It seems that no one even mentions St. John the Baptist anymore.  So much so that not long ago, during one of our confirmation retreats, we had a category in our “Jeopardy” game entitled “Famous Saints”. When I gave as the answer “I am the cousin of Jesus, and my feast day is June 24th,” no one came up with the correct question: “Who is John the Baptist?”  (Note to self: ask catechists to please spend a bit more time on the saints!)

It’s a good question.  So just who IS John the Baptist?  He must be pretty important, because aside from Jesus and Mary, he is the only saint whose birthday is celebrated as a special solemnity in our liturgical calendar.  (More typically, saints are remembered on the day of their death.)  John is also one of the few biblical figures to whom reference is made in secular histories of Roman and Jewish historians from the time of Jesus. 

His ministry by the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance, drew hundreds, even thousands of followers.  Regarded by the crowds as a great prophet, like Elijah and Jeremiah of old, he drew the unfavorable attention of King Herod Antipas, whose murderous and adulterous ways he denounced.  This led to his eventual imprisonment and execution.  

Most of us don’t think too much about the real significance of John the Baptist.  And yet, later on in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus praises John with these words: “among those born of woman, none is greater than John.”  And then he adds, “yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than him.”  So what does John the Baptist offer us as we seek to make sense of what it means to live as a witness of Christ in a very secular society? 

First, John teaches us the value of humility.  When asked what he was doing and by whose authority he baptized, John immediately defers to the One he came to proclaim.   When Jesus appears on the scene, John moves out of the spotlight.  Enter Jesus stage right; exit John stage left.   John is the witness pointing to the Light, but Jesus is the Light.  John is the herald but Jesus is the message; John is the voice but Jesus is the Word; John is the Best Man, but Jesus is the Bridegroom.  John preached repentance, and Jesus brought forgiveness.  John baptized with water, but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. John called for justice and conversion of heart, but Jesus offered the grace that enables and empowers such change, growth, spiritual revolution.  John prepared the path, but Jesus IS the Way.  John’s whole life, and all his energies and passion, were spent in directing people to Jesus.  John pointed not to himself, but to Jesus.

Though obviously strong and fiery in temperament, John did not seek out the spotlight.  To be humble is to see, accept, and love yourself as you truly are: with your faults and failings, as well as your strengths and virtues.  It is also to know that the world does not revolve around you.  Genuinely humble people center their lives on others rather than on themselves.  This is exactly what John did.  John centered his life on Jesus. 

Now, John was no shrinking violet.  As we hear in today’s Gospel, from the moment of his conception, great things were promised through him; at his birth and naming, people speculated about what and whom this child might become.  He grew into a strong and self-assured adult with a larger-than-life personality, a deep sense of his prophetic mission, as a leader within the Essenes, a reform movement within Judaism.   Yet with all this, John wasn’t full of himself.  “He must increase, and I must decrease.”  How many of us can say that – and really mean it?   Live it?   John the Baptist did. 

The image of John as a fierce and wild prophet, living in the desert on locusts and wild honey, dressed in camel-skins, preaching repentance and denouncing kings for their sinful ways, may be hard for some of us to relate to.  It can even feel embarrassing.  But as one who pointed to Jesus, John can be a great model for us.  For is that not what we want, for ourselves and for those we love: to be brought closer to Jesus?  To become ourselves more and more like Jesus?  When I was in Halifax last week, participating with over 700 delegates (including 200 priests) at the Divine Renovation Conference, I was struck by the testimony of parishes from across the world  – including our next-door neighbours at St. Ignatius of Loyola – about the challenge of transforming their parishes from a “maintenance” model to a “mission” model. 

John the Baptist reminds us that we too are called to give ourselves wholeheartedly to the challenge of living as missionary disciples.  It is our relationship with Jesus, our desire to pattern our life after his, that motivates us not only to come to church, to pray, to be loving in our relationships and just in our dealings with others, but to bear active witness to our faith: at home, at work, in the larger society – so that others, seeing and experiencing our love and concern, might be drawn themselves to know and follow the Lord. 

It’s not just about “me and Jesus”; there is a whole world hungry for the message of Jesus, for a life-giving, saving relationship with Christ in the church.  This is what Pope Francis means when he invites us to be less self-referential, to be willing to go out to the peripheries, to the borders where there is human suffering, where children are traumatized by being brutally separated from their parents, where shiploads of migrants can find no port ready to welcome them.  This is where the Gospel message needs to be proclaimed and lived.

The birth of John the Baptist teaches us the value of faith: to really believe that nothing is impossible for God.  That what seems barren and dead within us can foster the greatest life.  For if Elizabeth and Zechariah could bring a son to birth in their old age, when both were well beyond the cycle of fertility, there is still hope for us! Even in the barren patches of our lives, in those desert places that seem dry as dust, life can spring forth in the most unlikely and unexpected places.  We just need to remain open.   

John also reveals the importance of connecting with our deep personal vocation, that unique Name by which God calls each of us.  Last week, when I baptized Claire Elizabeth Byatt Lowe at the 11 a.m. Mass, the first question I asked Meghan and Iain were: “What name do you give your child?”  Names are important.  Names establish our identity. 

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we hear the words of the prophet: “The Lord called me from birth; from my mother’s womb, he named me.”  Typically, in the Jewish tradition, a firstborn son received his father’s name, or that of a grandfather or uncle.  The name Zechariah, for instance, means “the one God remembers.”  He served as one of the Temple priests, and his firstborn son would have been expected to succeed him.  But God had something else in store for him.  John would not be “Zechariah Jr.”, taking over his father’s priestly duties.  He had to break with the family tradition in order to respond to God’s call.  For John’s call was not to be a priest, but a prophet

What is the meaning of John’s name?  “God is gracious.”  Through the grace of God, hearing and responding to the voice of God echoing deep within him, John left his hometown, all that was familiar to him, to go into the wilderness.  Eventually, he came out from the desert to the Jordan River, to assume his ministry of preaching repentance and baptizing.   

Out of that barren desert, God’s grace brought forth repentance, conversion, and revelation of the deepest and most fundamental truths: that we are called by name, unique and precious in God’s sight.  In the words of Psalm 139, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” cherished as God’s beloved, in whom the Father is well-pleased.   If we really lived out of this awareness, how different would we be!  How different would this province, this nation if you insist, look if we would heed the message of St. John the Baptist, under whose patronage we have been entrusted, if we imitated his example of humility, courage, self-sacrifice, and fidelity to his vocation.  

This is not to say it was always easy for John.  Knowing who he was, was John always perfectly sure of himself, or even of Jesus?  It seems not.  When he found himself in prison, awaiting death, John sent messengers to ask if Jesus was indeed “the One who is to come.”  Like the Servant in our first reading from Isaiah, John too wondered, “Have I labored in vain?  Have I spent my strength for nothing?”  He needed to be reassured that he had not been mistaken, that he had not given his life for a lost cause.  Once he heard that all the signs associated with the coming of the Messiah were happening – sight to the blind, freedom to captives, new life to those who were dead – he faced his death with courage, knowing the One whose way he had prepared was indeed “the Real Deal”: “light to the nations”, source of salvation for all peoples. 

Like John, we too can be racked with doubts, fears, uncertainty.  We find ourselves wondering, “Have I labored in vain?  Has anything I’ve done been worthwhile?  Am I making any kind of difference in the world?” But even here, we are called to point to Jesus. 

During this week between our two great national holidays – June 24 and July 1 – perhaps now is a good time to reflect on the ways in which my own individual life, our shared life as a parish community, our communal life as a society – points to Jesus.  Are the values of our lives, our churches, our nation, those of the Kingdom whose coming John proclaimed and whose fullness is promised in Jesus?   Important things to think about, in the midst of the flag-waving, the patriotic songs and concerts, the bonfires and BBQs and fireworks!  Are we living out of our identity, are we being true to what God is calling us to do, to whom God is calling us to be!

Today’s Gospel, for reasons of brevity, omits a very important passage in which John’s father Zechariah proclaims a great hymn of praise which is prayed every morning by the church in the Liturgy of the Hours.  “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel: He has come to his people and set them free.”  May its closing section, which speaks of the future vocation of John the Baptist, inspire us as we seek to live out the call to love and serve as he did:  

 

“You, my child, shall be called the Prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 

 

Gloria Patri …