Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist
[Scripture Readings: Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80 ]
In one Charlie Brown comic strip, Lucy and her younger brother, Linus, are uncharacteristically holding hands and smiling benevolently at each other on a bright December day. Lucy says, “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 not a bad way to describe prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, or the greatest of them all, John the Baptist. They weep and intercede for each generation. They know who is coming to gather the wheat and burn the chaff, whose eyes are all seeing and whose face is like the sun shining in all its splendor. 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?
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 divine authority about what to believe and how to act, about our faith and our moral behavior. However, faith and morality cannot really be separated from economy. Economists might not be good prophets, but good prophets know that a widespread collapse of faith and moral behavior will have economic consequences.
Like John the Baptist, prophets have always preached about the economic consequences of injustice: from Amos, the first of the Old Testament prophets who cried out, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”, to John the Baptist who said, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” , to the last book of the New Testament describing the fall of civilization as we know it, whose economic collapse will be the object of intense lamentation, as the great Seer of the Book of Revelation has written, “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” . What we believe moves the way we live, and the way we live has social and economic consequences for better or for worse.
John the Baptist is a hard act to follow, but every Christian is called to be a prophet. John was the forerunner and model for all who want to integrate faith, morality and economy in a Christian way. John is a particularly good role model for monks, because he lived in the wilderness, in desert places. He was a man of prayer who taught his disciples how to pray . He fasted often abstaining from wine and living on an austere diet of locusts and wild honey . He practiced self-renunciation saying, “He must increase and I must decrease” . He proclaimed the need to share one’s goods with the poor . He was truly seeking God, waiting for the One who was to come . He was celibate, and lived in poverty. And he was obedient to the Word of God, quoting by heart from the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ ” . From the warm safe little cell in his mother’s womb to the damp dangerous cell in Herod’s prison, John the Baptist was a monastic prophet who wept and interceded for his generation as we try to do for ours.
In Christ , we are all called to be priests, prophets and kings. 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.“1 He wrote this over a hundred years before the terrible human suffering of the Civil War.
Like John the Baptist, and the prophetic John Woolman, we are called to be prophets who weep and intercede for our generation. 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 in wombs no longer safe. If the present economic crisis really is inseparable from the crisis of faith and moral behavior in our times, then it will not be put right by economists and politicians. As prophets for our times, we know that a change of mind and heart is the way to heaven, and that Jesus can forgive every sin, even abortion. Let us listen when John the Baptist preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist
[Scripture Readings: Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80 ]
A friend of one of our monks told this story. As a traveling salesman his work kept him on the road, away from family and home too much of the time. One day, while he was away, his wife gave birth to a healthy baby. He turned around and rushed to the hospital and collapsed into an easy chair by her bedside. When a nurse came in and asked, “Are you feeling okay,” he replied, “Oh, I’m just a little worn out.” The nurse looked at him, sprawled out in 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, “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, “What did I say wrong now?” She replied, “We have four kids, not three!”
Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t even have one child, and they were advanced in age. Although they “were righteous and lived blamelessly,” (Lk 1:6), the blessing of a child passed them by. Then an astonishing thing happened. The archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and said, “Do not be afraid for your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear a son. He will be great and prepare a perfect people for the Lord, … and many will rejoice at his birth” (Lk 1:13-14).
“Your prayer has been heard.” At Mount Sinai the Lord revealed himself to Moses saying, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex 33:19). This child could have been given to other parents, but the Lord heard their prayer and said, “Name him John,” a name that means, “God is gracious.” He not only heard their prayer, but also promised that John would be great, completely filled with the Holy Spirit, (Lk 1:13-17).
Once there was an old schoolmaster who always began classes by bowing gravely to his young students. When asked why, he replied, “Because among my students there may be some who will do great things for God.” John the Baptist was such a child: sanctified in the womb, he was a cousin of Jesus, a desert prophet, an ascetic roughly clothed and practicing penance for others, an ardent preacher of conversion, a mystic, and a martyr for the truth. Most of all, John was called to prepare people to receive the Lord. That’s something every parent and every teacher, and every good friend should do.
Like the wise Dominican sister who used to give good advice to her children in second grade. She said, “Ask God every day to know your vocation in life.” I was one of her students. From that day onward, I began praying every day to know my vocation, to do what the Lord wanted me to do in life. The Lord heard my prayer and has been very gracious to me.
I want to give that same advice to the young, and to anyone discerning their calling in life. Pray every day to know your vocation, the way 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, she so pleased the king and his court 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 pray, and to please God? Instead, she received bad counsel, and became cruel at a very tender age. Now we remember her only because she caused the martyrdom of a great saint.
John the Baptist knew his vocation in life even from infancy. It was proclaimed by an angel and taught to him by his father, Zechariah, and his mother, Elizabeth. We repeat it every day in the canticle we sing at Lauds, the Benedictus, blessing God who is so gracious to us. John did not have to pray to know his vocation to prepare the way of the Lord, but he did have to pray for strength to persevere in it, even to martyrdom. And so do we. We are Christians, committed to a way of life pleasing to God. We must ask God every day for the grace of perseverance. It is not in our own power to persevere in whatever Christian way of life God has called us.
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, even for the grace to face martyrdom like John the Baptist. It is a very important prayer, because without the gift of grace none of us can persevere in our Christian faith and practice. So, 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.”
Solemnity of the Birth of John The Baptist
[Scripture Readings: Is. 49: 1-6; Acts 13: 22-26; Lk. 1: 57-66, 80]
One of the challenges with which our post-Christian society confronts us is the contradiction between the promise of fulfillment that it gives and the result that by ignoring and in some cases denying the gospel it cuts the ground for fulfillment from under us. A consistent message in the Bible from beginning to end is that creation, including you and me, is not an accident. God had a design for creation before the foundation of the world and he continues to bring his design to fulfillment; often in ways that are hidden and beyond our understanding.
This good news is a theme that is present not only in this morning’s readings about John the Baptist. John himself is the embodiment of this good news; good news, however, that consistently turns our expectations upside down. John’s parents were from an unimportant branch of the priestly class. According to human reckoning Elizabeth was beyond the age to have children. Zachariah was struck dumb until his birth. Contrary to the conventional practice of the time God gave him a name which left relatives and neighbors bewildered, and then frightened when Zachariah regained his speech.John’s preparation for announcing the coming of the Messiah was the barrenness and obscurity of the desert. When he proclaimed the word of God it earned him the ire of Herodias and Herod and eventually cost him his life. The meaning of John’s life was to prepare the way for the Messiah. When his disciples pointed out that Jesus was attracting more disciples than he, he responded that Jesus must increase and he himself must decrease. From prison he wondered if Jesus was truly the Messiah he had expected and was told not to be scandalized at a Messiah who brought healing and reconciliation for the poor and oppressed, the outcasts and marginalized of society. It was with this call to faith that John went to his death. It is about this man that Jesus said no one born before the advent of the kingdom of God was greater than he.
What do John and this morning’s readings say to you and me? There is certainly a call to faith and hope. Contrary to what society would have us think, perhaps contrary to what we ourselves at times think, we too were called from the womb to be God’s servants. We did not just happen; we have been called in God’s love. Contrary to what our circumstances may lead us to think we too have been called to prepare a way for the Lordwhere we are! Each of us has a role to play in God’s design for the salvation of the world. We may not have the fiery speech that John had. Our way may be words or simple acts of kindness that go largely unnoticed in the ordinariness of our lives. On the other hand, perhaps we will be called to take an unpopular stand and accept whatever consequences follow. There may be times when we too have to search our hearts and ask ourselves if we didn’t get things wrong and wasted our time. It is precisely at these times that we are called to believe that God is faithful to his promises and will bring his word to fulfillment in his time and in his way. God gave us the gift of life and he alone is the fulfillment of our life. Our call is to listen for God’s word in faith and live according to it in hope.