Solemnity of Birth of St. John the Baptist
[Scripture Readings: Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80 ]
“What will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” From his very conception, John the Baptist belonged entirely to God and lived completely for humanity to bring them to God. John put it this way: “He must increase; I must decrease.” Humility was clearly not his fall-back position! It was his natural orientation to life. It seems he may have gotten it from his parents who got it from being a part of the people of Israel, God's chosen people. For these people, humility is the solidarity of the humiliated.1
John's people were impoverished and oppressed. In an Israel dominated by Roman power, they were humiliated. They sought righteousness. To obtain it they had to reject any idea of using the tactics of their oppressors because the Israelites did not have the same aim as the oppressors: to become rich and the expense of others. The Israelite aim was to be just before God. Righteousness and trustworthiness had to prevail in order for Israelite society to be in solidarity. In order for their humiliation to become humility, they had to deliberately accept their situation; renounce the judgment put on them by their oppressors, and act together for the common good.
Thus John's call for the decrease of self to make way for the increase of Christ became the basic operating principle for his people when Jesus emerged. It is a principle of receptivity; it is a principle of self-emptying. It was the basic principle for the spread of the church in general and for monasticism in particular. It is self-forgetfulness and it is opening self to authentic values, to what matters most. When the Israelites preferred God's justice to the ill-gotten wealth of their rulers, they chose what is of enduring value-in-itself over what merely feels good at the moment. They chose it as a society because they knew two things: first, that as a people they were creatures of a single Supreme Being; second, they knew they could not remain loyal to God's justice without the support of one another. That is what we as a community must remember.
In yesterday's gospel, we were called to deny self and each of us is to take up her cross daily. That cross is first one's own personality: one's anxieties, insecurities, and inadequacies. These grow out of our will-to-control and out of our comparison of our insides to the outside appearances of others. (Such is pride.) We try to hide these inadequacies in an effort to enjoy a reputation we know in our hearts we don't deserve. Yet, they are a cross, rather than pathology, only if we are headed toward the kingdom of God. Realizing such feelings are a burden to us, we can empathize with the sensitivities of others in our communities. This is how we decrease and allow Christ to increase. We can share, sympathize and we can encourage.
That is humility as the solidarity of the humiliated.
Solemnity of Birth of St. John the Baptist
[Scripture Readings: Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80 ]
A traveling salesman told this story about his marriage. He had to be away from his family much of the time. One day, while he was on the road, his wife gave birth to a premature baby. He turned around and rushed to the hospital where he collapsed into an easy chair by her bedside. A nurse poked her head into the room and asked, “Are you feeling okay?” He replied, “Oh, I feel a little worn out.” The nurse looked at him, sprawled across the chair, and said, “I was talking to your wife, not you.” A few months later his wife complained that he was never home long enough for them to do things together. He was becoming a stranger to the family. Wanting to please her, he said, “You're right. Let's take the three kids and go on a week's vacation right now, anywhere you like.” At that she burst out crying. Completely dismayed by her reaction he asked, “Now what did I say wrong?” She replied, “We have four kids, not three!”
Elizabeth and Zechariah didn't even have one child, and they were advanced in age. Then an amazing thing happened. The archangel Gabriel appeared with astonishing news, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son. He will be great … and prepare a people for the Lord,… and many will rejoice at his birth” (Lk 1:13-14). John was called to be a prophet, so are we.
Once there was an old schoolmaster who began classes by bowing solemnly to his young students. When asked why he did this, he replied, “Because among my students there may be some who will do great things for God. By my reverence I am preparing them for their vocation in life.” John the Baptist was such a child: sanctified in the womb, a cousin of Jesus, a desert prophet, an ascetic roughly clothed and practicing penance for others, a preacher of conversion, a mystic, and a martyr for the truth. John was called to prepare people to receive the Lord. That's something every parent, every teacher, every Christian should do. That's what a prophet does, prepares people for the Lord. Every Christian has the grace to be a good prophet.
A wise Dominican sister used to teach second grade at St. Robert's in Milwaukee. She knew how to prepare us for life. She said, “Ask God every day to know your vocation in life.” From that day onward, I began praying daily to know my vocation. The Lord heard my prayer and has been very gracious to me.
So, one way to be a prophet is to give good advice to children, like this: “Pray every day to know your vocation, the way of life in which you will be most pleasing to God.” Once there was a young girl whose parents were not seeking God. No one taught her how to pray. She grew beautiful and loved to dance. On a king's birthday, when she was in her middle teens and ravishingly beautiful, she so pleased the king and his court by her dancing that he promised to give her even half his kingdom. She said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” Her mother replied, “The head of John the Baptist.” What might that girl have become if she had been taught to ask how to please God? Instead, she received evil counsel, and became cruel at a very tender age. Now we remember her only because she caused the martyrdom of a John the Baptist.
Another way to be a prophet is illustrated by Charlie Brown. In one comic strip Lucy and her younger brother, Linus, are uncharacteristically holding hands and smiling benevolently at each other on a bright December day. Lucy proclaims, “We're brother and sister and we love each other.” Charlie Brown throws his hands up into the air, and declares, “You're hypocrites, that's what you are! Do you really think you can fool Santa Claus this way?” Lucy replies with smug confidence, “Why not? We're a couple of sharp kids, and he's just an old man.” In the last frame Charlie Brown leans his head against the trunk of a leafless tree and says, “I weep for our generation!”
Now that's a good way to describe the role of prophets like Amos and Jeremiah, or the greatest of them all, John the Baptist. They weep and intercede for each generation. They know the day is coming to gather the wheat and burn the chaff. Do we have any prophets today who can expose our self-deceptions and prepare us so that when Christ comes we can stand to meet him with joy? Can you be such a prophet?
Recently I heard about an economist named, Gerald Celente, who has a remarkable record for accurate economic forecasting. He pinpointed the financial crashes of 1987 and 2008 before they happened. Today he is filled with foreboding about the future. He writes in his website, TrendsResearch.com, that the current rise in stock markets, the consequent feelings of hope, simply cannot last and are giving us a false sense of security. He warns that the huge debts our businesses and banks are carrying, and the extension of gratuitous credit are unsustainable. But he's an economist, not a prophet. A prophet speaks with authority about what to believe and how to act. And good prophets know that a widespread collapse of faith and moral behavior will have economic consequences. So, John the Baptist said, “Let those who have food and clothing share with those who do not” (Lk 3:11). For a good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit. It will be cut down.
The last book of the New Testament describes the fall of civilization as we know it, whose economic collapse will be the object of intense lamentation. St. John writes, “In one hour her judgment has come, and the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for the fallen city, since no one buys their cargo any more” (Rev 18:10-11). What we believe changes the way we live, and the way we live has social and economic consequences for better or for worse. We can be good prophets by what we believe and the way we live.
Even a lawyer can be a Christian prophet! Recently a large pharmaceutical company stopped using mice for their lab experiments and started using lawyers instead. Asked why, they said: “First, there are more lawyers than mice. Second, our scientists don't get attached to lawyers the way they do to mice. And third, there are some things that mice just won't do!” Now, not all lawyers are like that. In the year 1756 there was a good Christian Quaker named John Woolman who was 36 years old. His conscience bothered him for handling the sale of slaves until he finally decided there was one thing he would not do: he would no longer write a bill of sale for clients selling slaves. He believed slavery was wrong, and he suffered economically for his change of heart. He wrote in his journal: “When I ate, drank and lodged with people that lived in ease on the toil of their slaves, I felt uneasy … I frequently had conversation with them in private concerning it. I saw so many vices and corruptions spreading, occasioned by this slave trade … that it appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land … In the future the consequences will be grievous to posterity.”He wrote this over a hundred years before the terrible human suffering of the Civil War that resulted from slavery. What will happen in our times? In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “Because wickedness is multiplied most men's love will grow cold” (Mt. 24:12).
We can be good prophets by standing up for what we believe and love. We know that widespread disbelief about the value of human life in the womb has already caused grievous sufferings for our most defenseless little ones. The present crisis over the Health Care Plan, and over religious freedom and freedom of conscience is challenging our beliefs and moral behavior. We know that people in our times need a change of mind and of heart and behavior. But our message does not have to be one of condemnation. Instead, like John the Baptist we can proclaim that Jesus wants to forgive every sin, even abortion. Jesus loves us and wants us to repent of everything that is evil so that we may bear good fruit, “for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
John the Baptist knew his vocation even as a child. It was proclaimed by an angel and taught to him by his aged parents. He did not have to pray to know his vocation, but he did have to pray for strength to persevere in it, even to martyrdom. Another way to be a good prophet is to ask God every day for the grace of perseverance because it is beyond our natural powers. It is a gift of grace, like baptism. Pray for it every day, for yourself and others. That is a way to prepare ourselves and others to meet the Lord.
Shortly before Jesus laid down his life for us, he taught us to pray daily for perseverance. He said, “Watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all the things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:36). That is a prayer for perseverance unto death, especially for the grace to suffer martyrdom like John the Baptist rather than ever deny Christ by what we do or fail to do. It is a very important prayer, because without this gift none of us can persevere in our Christian vocation. So, like John the Baptist, let us pray every day, “Lord Jesus Christ, may I have the strength to endure and escape all that is to come, and to stand before you in joy when you appear.” Do all this and you will be a good prophet, a good person, a very good Christian.