Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sacred Heart Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 24, 2016
Is 49:1-6, Ps 139, Acts 13:22-26, Lk 1:57-66.80
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist. Only three times in the Church’s year do we celebrate birthdays. December 25th is the most obvious birthday we commemorate. Daily Mass goers know that on September 8 we mark the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but we mark it rather quietly in comparison to the solemnity with which we celebrate her Immaculate Conception nine months earlier. Today, June 24th, we celebrate the birth of the famous son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The Archangel Gabriel had said to Zechariah about the son his elderly and presumably barren wife would conceive, “Many will rejoice at his birth!” (Lk 1:14) and today we join that in that jubilation. Jesus would later say, “Among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28), and the Church’s liturgical calendar puts that truth into prayer: after Jesus, no one born of woman, not even the Blessed Virgin, has a more solemn celebration associated with his worldly-visible debut than John the Baptist.
- It’s important to ask why the Church has always considered this feast so important. I think the fundamental answer is because the Church first considers the life of John the Baptist so important and second considers the events of his conception, gestation and birth highly significant aspects of his life. John’s vocation to give witness to the Lord, to go before him to prepare his way, began not when he appeared at the Jordan in camel’s hair, but in the womb. Before he was conceived, the Archangel Gabriel told his father, “Even before his birth, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:15). We saw an effect of this at the Visitation, when John leaped in the womb of his mother pointing out the presence of the prenatal Lamb of God within Mary (Lk 1:44). What God said to Jeremiah in the first reading of the Vigil of this Solemnity, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” and to Isaiah in today’s, “The Lord, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him,” could just as easily be said about John. He was formed in the womb and consecrated to be a prophet to the nations in order to bring God’s people back to Him, and he was already carrying out that consecrated mission from his earliest days.
- These truths about a consecrated mission from the womb, however, apply not just to Jeremiah, Isaiah and John the Baptist. The truth is that the Lord knows every one of us that intimately before he forms us in the womb. We can all exclaim with the words of today’s Psalm, “Truly you have formed by inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb!” None of us is a number, a census statistic, just a random biological happening to God. Just like John the Baptist had a vocation and a mission from before he was born, each of us is formed by God with a divine destiny and given a vocation and mission in this world to achieve that destiny and help others achieve their own. While there will be specific differences between your and my mission and John’s, there are several characteristics in common.
- Like John’s, our mission is given by God as part of God’s plan for us from the beginning.
- Like John, the Lord fills us with the Holy Spirit at our baptism to help us accomplish this mission.
- Like John, we are called to recognize who God is, that he is so great and holy that none of us is worthy to loosen the straps of his sandals (Mk 1:7; Lk 3:16; Acts 13:25). This recognition makes the Lord’s desire to stoop down and wash our feet even more mind-blowing (Jn 13:5).
- Like John, we recognize that we’re not the Messiah, that we’re not God, which means that we, like John, recognize that we don’t call the shots — God does — and we not only trust in His will by actually say and mean, “thy will, not mine, be done.”
- Like John, we need to make straight the paths for God to rule in our life. For John, that meant going out into the desert to pray, fasting on locusts and wild honey, dressing in a way that symbolized his interior repentance and reparation. For us, it means going away from our distractions to pray, fasting and living a penitential and reparative life and adorning ourselves with sacrificial love.
- Like John, after we’re living a converted life, we are called to summon others to conversion. John did it at the Jordan River. We’re called to do it at the East and Hudson Rivers, here in this Convent, at the UN and wherever our apostolates take us. We have the mission to help prepare the way for Christ to come into the lives of those around us.
- Like John, we’re called on to decrease so that Christ may increase in others lives, to grow each day in humility.
- Like John, each of us is called to be a “friend of the Bridegroom.” That’s the title John gave himself when his disciples complained to him that everyone was going to Jesus instead of him. “He who has the bride is the bridegroom,” he replied. “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jesus is the Bridegroom, who had come to enter into a spousal covenant with all of us in the Church as his bride. John considered himself the “Friend of the Bridegroom,” an ancient expression referring to the “best man” who would protect the bride until the time when husband and wife would begin living together. He was Jesus’ friend. Each of us, likewise, is called to be the friend of Jesus, to introduce others to the one who in the Last Supper, said, “I call you friends, because I have revealed to you everything I have heard from my Father,” and to protect his bride from all those who would want to distract her heart from the bridegroom.
- Like John, we’re called to point others to the Lamb of God. John did it when he saw Jesus at the Jordan. We’re called to do it by pointing people to Jesus in the Eucharist, pointing to him taking away sins in the confessional, pointing to him calling us to follow him in the moral life, pointing to him speaking to us in the pages of Sacred Scripture, pointing to him in the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the imprisoned and encouraging them to respond with the love that God deserves.
- No matter what our state of life, or age, or sex, each of us is called to imitate John the Baptist in these areas.
- As we read in today’s Gospel, at John’s birth everybody wondered aloud, “What will this child become?” That is the question people have at the birth of every child. It was asked at our birth by our parents and many others. The parents present here this morning, in one form or another, have asked it hundreds of times about their own children. Zechariah and Elizabeth would never have dreamed in their little village of Ain Karim that, here in New York, more than 2000 years later, we would be remembering their son’s birthday. Even with all the miraculous occurrences surrounding his conception, little could they have foreseen the role he would play in salvation history — his life, his martyrdom, his being the precursor of the Son of God in birth, in preaching and even in death. Similarly, few parents who bring their child to be baptized have any idea of God’s incredible plans for their children. And God has even greater plans for children being baptized than he did for John the Baptist! After Jesus said in the Gospel that John is the greatest born of woman, he added, “but the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Lk 7:28). Each of us is consecrated by God in the womb of the Church (the baptismal font) to be not just his forerunner, but his son or daughter, and to live forever with him in his eternal kingdom of God. We may or may not become famous in this world, we may not have our birthdays celebrated across the globe in hundreds of languages in the year of our Lord 4000, or 40,000, but God intends us all to be quite famous in the next. That’s his desired answer to the question parents in every generation ask about their children, “What will this child become?” He wants them to work with him so that their child will become just as much a saint as John the Baptist, by imitating all that God teaches us about how to relate to his Son Jesus through his cousin’s virtues.
- That’s God’s desire. That’s our calling and our mission. God will give us all the help he knows we need to achieve that destiny — which also includes Crosses! — but whether we achieve it or not depends on us. The celebration of a birthday is a time for all of us to reflect on the meaning of life and this celebration of John the Baptist’s birth brings us to reflect not just on the meaning of his life, but the meaning of our own. When Elizabeth said, “His name is John” and Zechariah wrote it on the tablet — meaning “God is gracious” — they probably didn’t realize that one day that name would have a prefix. Little did our parents realize when they brought us to be baptized that God’s plan is for us one day to have that same prefix. The same goes for every child parents bring to the font. All of us are meant to have our name preceded by the most glorious prefix possible: “saint.” But to be given that honor and induction into the eternal hall of fame, we must live up to the title, a word that means “holy.” We become holy on the day of our baptism and are called to live in that holiness in each of our choices, by living in constant communion with God and God’s will. All of us have known young people who were enormously gifted academically, athletically or musically, but who wasted their talents and amount to very little in any of those areas. The same thing happens with the spiritual talents and gifts God gives us. Some of us develop them fully; some of us waste them. Even though John was filled with the Holy Spirit from before he was born, he still lived a life of great self-denial so that he would never deny God. He responded to his mission with fidelity and allowed God’s work to continue in him. That’s what we are called to do. What we become in response to our divine destiny is dependent on our choices, on whether we develop or waste the tremendous gifts and calling God gives each of us. Today’s celebration is meant to remind us that each of us is capable of the fidelity and courage we see in John the Baptist if only we respond to God’s graces as he did! This is a very important thought — perhaps the most important one of all — for us to ponder now four days into the Fortnight for Freedom.
- We conclude by turning back one last time to St. John the Baptist on this his birthday. Normally on birthdays we give the anniversarian a gift, but today John the Baptist gives us a present, the gift of his intercession for us that we may be faithful to the mission God has given each of us from the womb, remain in holy communion with God, and collaborate with him to bring or help others maintain their holy communion with God. And just like he did nearly 2000 years ago, he indicates to us the path to holiness by pointing us to Jesus in the Eucharist, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. As we prepare to receive Jesus now, we thank Him for the gift of our life and the gift of those we know and love. We thank him for the gift of the priesthood. We thank him for the gift of each other and our mutual friendship in the Lord. And we ask Him for the help so that we, like John, might develop our friendship with him so that he may increase within us and bring us and others to the eternal destiny for which we, like John, were born.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
PS 139:1B-3, 13-14AB, 14C-15
O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and when I stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
My journeys and my rest you scrutinize,
with all my ways you are familiar.
R. I praise you for I am wonderfully made.
Truly you have formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works.
R. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
My soul also you knew full well;
nor was my frame unknown to you
When I was made in secret,
when I was fashioned in the depths of the earth.
R. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
In those days, Paul said:
“God raised up David as king;
of him God testified,
I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart;
he will carry out my every wish.
From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
and as John was completing his course, he would say,
‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he.
Behold, one is coming after me;
I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.’
“My brothers, sons of the family of Abraham,
and those others among you who are God-fearing,
to us this word of salvation has been sent.”
LK 1:57-66, 80
she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child,
they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply,
“No. He will be called John.”
But they answered her,
“There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,”
and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed,
and he spoke blessing God.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
“What, then, will this child be?”
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the desert until the day
of his manifestation to Israel.