Eucharistic Celebration with the Board of Governors and Board of Regents of Bethlehem University
Generalate of the Christian Brothers de la Salle
Rome, Italy - June 24, 2010
It is an honor to preside and preach at this liturgy in the world headquarters of the Christian Brothers de la Salle, who have been entrusted with the prophetic mission and work of Bethlehem University in Palestine. Your important meetings in Rome with many agencies involved in the Holy Land, combined with our meeting with the Holy Father tomorrow, coincide with today’s great feast of the birth of the one who was “Precursor”, “Friend of the Bridegroom”, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” John the Baptizer. I share these reflections with you as a student of the Word of God in the very places where this Word was first spoken, as a friend of the Christian Brothers, and as the head of a Catholic television network in Canada that has been privileged to produce a documentary on the remarkable story of Bethlehem University.
Today’s first reading, the second of the four "Servant of the Lord" songs of the prophet Isaiah 49:1-6 identifies so well the role of the Baptist. He was truly the Servant made ready and fit for the preaching of God's word. John was identified with the people of Israel and his vocation was ultimately not only the restoration of Israel, but also the conversion of the world. John was the sharp-edged sword who pointed out the true light to the nations, the one whose salvation would reach to the ends of the earth.
St. Paul, in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (13:22-26) spoke of this John who 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.'
In the Gospel text for today’s feast, Luke writes in imitation of Old Testament birth stories, combining historical and legendary details, literary ornamentation and interpretation of scripture, to answer in advance the question, "Who is Jesus Christ?" Luke is not only interested in the words and deeds of Jesus, but also in the larger context of the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises of God in the Old Testament. Like the Gospel according to Matthew, Luke’s Gospel opens with an infancy narrative, a collection of stories about the birth and childhood of Jesus.
There is no Gospel that begins the story of Jesus' public ministry without first telling the reader about the life and mission of John the Baptist. John's preceding Jesus was clearly fixed in the Christian tradition, so much, that in two of the three Gospels that begin their story before the public ministry with Jesus' first appearance on earth, John the Baptist is brought forth to precede the appearance as well. His role in salvation history and in announcing the coming of the Messiah is beautifully described in the Advent preface of the Roman liturgy: "John the Baptist was his herald and made him known when at last he came."
John the Baptist was a man of the desert and began his preaching in the desert: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path" (Mk. 1:3; Mt. 3:3). His long years in the desert before his appearance as a preacher and teacher of repentance (Lk. 1:80) were the source and time for many possibilities. It must be the same for all who would follow Jesus. Each and every ministry and service in the Kingdom of God that involves communication with others requires first a period of preparation in the wilderness and loneliness of our own human deserts. Only in those moments of solitude can we be attentive to God's word in our lives. When do we go to listen to the Word of God? Where is that holy ground in our own life where God's word is unbound and totally free to be heard, experienced and lived? Do we allow our deserts to speak to us and form us?
When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus' own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes (Mt. 11:7-19; Lk. 7:24-35). Jesus also testifies to John's greatness in calling him a "witness to the truth, a burning and shining lamp" (Jn. 5:33-56). John could not save, but he gave other people a profound experience of forgiveness, thus allowing them to experience God wherever they were on their life journey. He considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus, "There is one among you whom you do not recognize -- the one coming after me -- the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten" (John 1:26-27). When John's own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus' baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently: "No one can receive anything except what is given them from heaven..." John says that he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (Jn. 3:25-30). The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.
John the Baptist is finally imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Mt. 4:12; Mk. 1:14; Lk. 3:19). John was executed as a result of the foolish pledge made by Herod during a drunken orgy (Mt. 14:1-2; Mk. 6:14-28; Lk. 9:7-9). Just as the Baptist and the Messiah are closely linked in their births so too are their fates so closely intertwined.
Let me conclude with a biblical image that was the backdrop of the mission of John the Baptist: that of the desert and its dry and barren climate. In Isaiah's prophetic vision in chapter 35:1-10, waters gush forth in the desert, and the dry, parched land springs to life. This image is a promise of life in the midst of desolation. Isaiah sees the desert come alive this way, sees its blossoming abundance as new life announcing the glory and majesty of God.
We have experienced some of this barrenness and desolation in the Church over the past year. Bethlehem University knows what a geographical, spiritual, social, political and cultural desert is all about. With the exiles of Israel and the disciples of John the Baptist, we yearn for salvation, for one who enables new life to blossom. The new life in the desert signals the presence and power of God. Those who are weary, enfeebled or fearful can take heart because God comes to save. This means healing and transformation in specific ways: sight for those who are blind, hearing for those who are deaf, speech for those who are mute. So great is the joy and so profound the healing that those who were lame now leap and those who were speechless now sing.
Brothers and sisters, I say to you this evening here in Rome: Israel and Palestine need the prophetic witness of Bethlehem University. The world and the Church need this powerful witness. Founded in October 1973 with 112 students, it now counts nearly 12,000 graduates over 37 years. Its alumni represent the biblical lands of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Qubeibeh, Gaza, Hebron, Amman, and God knows how many people from the world of cyberspace! This university is a voice in the wilderness, a light to the nations, a friend of the Bridegroom, and a holy place where people can come together and adore God in spirit and in truth.
Through the inspiration of the Servant of God, Pope Paul VI, the tenacity and courage of the late Cardinal Pio Laghi, the cooperation of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches, and the dedication of so many Christian Brothers and their colleagues, supporters and friends, the desert of Judah has blossomed into a living oasis of life through this university, in the very place where the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us.
In the midst of our desert times, let us take courage and go forward in peace. “Transeamus usque ad Bethlehem ed videamus hoc verbum quod factum est.” Let us go to Bethlehem University and see the Word that continues to be made flesh and dwells powerfully among us.
Through the intercession of the Messiah’s herald, whose birth we commemorate today, of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, and Our Lady of Palestine, may Bethlehem University continue to be a voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is near, and proclaiming peace to those who are near, and peace to those who are far.
Shalom, salaam, enduring justice and peace for the God’s own land.
Father Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO Salt + Light Catholic Television Network