Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist - Sunday, June 24th, 2018
Today the Church celebrates the great feast of the birth of the one who was the “Precursor,” the “Friend of the Bridegroom,” “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”: John the Baptizer. The first reading is the second of the four “Servant of the Lord” songs of the prophet Isaiah (49:1-6). It exquisitely portrays the role of the Baptist. He was truly the Servant made fit and ready 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 today’s 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. Paul relates that as John was completing his discourse, 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” (13:25).
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.
The fact of John preceding Jesus is clearly fixed in the Christian narrative. Both Mark and Luke introduce the Baptist before introducing Jesus. Indeed, Jesus is introduced by way of John. John’s 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 there, proclaiming: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path” (Mark 1:3; Matthew 3:3). His long years in the desert before his appearance as a preacher and teacher of repentance (Luke 1:80) were the occasion for much growth and many experiences. It must be the same for all who follow Jesus. Each and every ministry and service in the Kingdom of God that involves communication with others first requires a period of preparation in the loneliness of the wilderness and our own human deserts. Only in those moments of solitude can we be attentive to God’s Word in our lives. When do we take time to listen to the Word of God? Where is that holy ground in our own lives 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 (Matthew 11:7-19; Luke 7:24-35). Jesus testifies to John’s greatness in calling him a “witness to the truth, a burning and shining lamp” (John 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’s 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 (John 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 (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 3:19). John was executed as a result of the foolish pledge made by Herod during a drunken debauchery (Matthew 14:1-2; Mark 6:14-28; Luke 9:7-9). Just as the Baptist and the Messiah are closely linked in their births, so too are their fates closely intertwined.
The Spirit of God enabled the prophets to feel with God. They were able to share God’s attitudes, God’s values, God’s feelings, God’s emotions. This enabled them to see the events of their time as God saw them and to feel the same way about these events as God felt. They shared God’s anger, God’s compassion, God’s sorrow, God’s disappointment, God’s revulsion, God’s sensitivity for people, and God’s seriousness. They did not share these things in the abstract; they shared God’s feelings about the concrete events of their time.
John the Baptist’s image is often portrayed in the finger pointing to the one who was coming: Jesus Christ. If we are to take on John’s role of preparing the way in today’s world, our lives also will become the pointing fingers of living witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus can be found and that he is near. John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the One who could save. Do we ourselves allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness, and of salvation?
John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and the human condition and that this way is Jesus himself. The Messiah comes to save us from the powers of darkness and death and to put us back on the path of peace and reconciliation so that we might find our way back to God. The Baptizer is not he but prepares his way.
The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote:
We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, “because it is only the voice of a man.” And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is “not worthy to untie the shoelaces” of its Lord who goes on before it.
[The readings for the Solemnity of Saint John the Baptist are: Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; and Luke 1:57-66, 80