Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Birth of St. John the Baptist
June 24, 2007
(Vigil) Jer 1:4-10; 1Pt 1:8-12; Lk 1:5-17; (Day) Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66
1) 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 has a greater celebration associated with his worldly visible debut than John the Baptist.
2) 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 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 last night’s first reading, “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.
3) 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, 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 need to recognize that we’re not the Messiah, that we’re not God. That means that we, like John, recognize that we don’t call the shots — God does — and we trust in His will.
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, 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 Acushnet River, and in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces. 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. In the lives of parents, especially those whose children are being called to the priesthood or religious life, there is a great need for this humility so that the Lord’s influence in the lives of those we love may grow.
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.
No matter what our state of life, or age, or sex, each of us is called to imitate John the Baptist in these areas.
4) 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 Bedford, 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, 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?”
5) 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. 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 with respect to our lives and to the lives of our children. 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 we see in John the Baptist if only we respond to God’s graces as he did!
6) The celebration of a birthday is a time for all of us to reflect on the meaning of life. 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, 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..
7) Today, John the Baptist on his birthday 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 2000 years ago, he points out 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 ask Him for the help so that we, like John, might allow Him to increase in our lives and bring us to the eternal destiny for which we were born.