Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24, 2019) at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.
Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la. No, this is not going to be a karaoke homily and I haven’t lost my mind. Those initial notes of the musical scale and their names come to us by an interesting path. The hymn for First Vespers of today’s feast is generally attributed to a monk named Paul the Deacon in the eighth century. Two centuries later, Guido of Arezzo noticed that the initial syllable of each verse of Paul’s hymn rose one degree higher than the preceding one; Guido took those initial syllables and gave them as the names for those notes. Thus, do we have the modern musical scale.
Another piece of John the Baptist trivia. You will notice that from today forward, our days will be getting shorter in a kind of tribute to the humility of today’s saint, who acknowledged that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
In Europe, when a child is named “John,” it is usually for John the Baptist, while here in the States, it is usually for John the Evangelist – at least in my experience.
One final cultural item. To this day, in many traditionally Catholic countries (many of which claim John as their patron), today is a holy day of obligation, accompanied by the phenomenon of the “St. John’s fires.” This folk custom undoubtedly grew up as a way of acknowledging John’s role as Our Lord’s precursor who “was a burning and shining lamp,” with the result that many “were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (Jn 5:35).
With some of the “fun stuff” shared, let’s get down to the deep-down identity of this man. A minute ago, I referred to him as the Lord’s “precursor.” Many years ago a short story (later, film) was published called “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” the point being that the life of such an athlete is rather unique and requires a certain style of personality and stamina. As the precursor or forerunner, John was also an ideal disciple and the preeminent prophet. In fact, we can say that he was the perfect intertestamental figure, straddling the eras of the Old and New Covenants and joining them in his person. What qualities did John possess which made him so perfect for the job? Qualities which all of us should possess if we are adequately to continue John’s tradition of bearing public witness to Christ.
John the Baptist is one of the most intriguing characters in the New Testament. Some Scripture commentators believe that John belonged to that Qumran community of Jewish monks who lived in the desert, praying and preparing themselves for the coming of the Messiah. From what the Gospels tell us of John and his message, that theory is not far-fetched. As with many strong individuals, the reaction of the crowds was very divided: Some thought he was indeed a prophet, and some thought he was a “kook”. Regardless of where one fell in those evaluations, however, every person was required to take a stand on John and his teachings – and there can be no doubt that he surely captivated the popular imagination, even that of Herod.
What was John’s magnetic pull? Firstly, he put himself and his desires in line with God’s age-old plan and purpose. So often we balk at what God wants from us because it may mean a degree of inconvenience; John set aside such considerations and even willingly accepted the reputation of a madman because of his intense pursuit of God’s commands in his life and preaching. Secondly, John believed he had been called to do a job, and that this task was a part of God’s eternal plan. John did not try to deny the call or thwart the implementation of the plan – he cooperated. The lesson for us, especially for young people looking for meaning, should be obvious. Thirdly, John was a humble pointer, with the accent on “humble.” The sign of a truly great person is that one can recognize one who is yet greater – and that was surely John. He didn’t get taken up with all the attention that was lavished on him and forget his goal. He remembered that his mission was to point out the Messiah to others and to let God take over from there. Finally, John was future-oriented. He looked to the past for guidance and inspiration for the present, but he always had one foot firmly planted in the future. If he hadn’t, he would have missed the Christ who came to him out of the future, not the past.
In Jesus, you see, God was beginning to do a brand new thing. This new thing was signified by the naming of the elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah’s child, who was to inaugurate this new era. That child’s naming process violated all the principles of Jewish tradition for he was not named after any of his forefathers – he received a whole new identity. His name means “gift of God,” and that is exactly what the name was and exactly what he was.
The whole John-event, with all the characters in the drama as it gradually unfolds, stands as a model for us in our life of faith. So often, like Zechariah, we are dumb, speechless in the face of the really important questions in life – often because, like Zechariah again, we have not put ourselves in touch with God’s master design and may have even set ourselves against it. Zechariah’s tongue was loosed when and only when he finally accepted the fact that God did know better.
Jesus “needed” John in order to make His debut 2000 years ago; He needs each one of us today. Did you ever think of that? If not, begin to see yourself as an occasion for introducing God and other people to one another. Realize, too, that the person at work or in college next to you may never really know Jesus Christ unless you, like John, “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Lk 1:76).
Traditionally, we refer to John as the last of the prophets. So, let us ponder for a few moments the meaning of the prophetic ministry. The word “prophet” comes from the Greek and means one who “speaks forth” or “speaks for.” The element of “foretelling” is secondary to that of “forth-telling.” Indeed, the biblical prophets – from Elijah to John the Baptist – did not exercise their unique vocation by functioning as early versions of Madame Zelda on the boardwalk; their role was to serve as God’s spokesmen. Throughout salvation history, God raised up prophets to keep His people on the straight and narrow road that leads back to Him or to bring them back to the straight and narrow way when they strayed. They were men specially chosen by God to proclaim His message; in other words, they were – and are – His spokesmen commissioned to preach to the people God’s word of judgment about their conduct. Not surprisingly, then, the prophetic vocation was a rather unpopular one; there was no long line of potential candidates for the position.
John the Baptist had a task similar to that of Isaiah, who had to advise the people that God was not pleased with their behavior. Isaiah then encouraged them to change their lives or else face the disaster that would befall them as a nation. They did not listen, and they found themselves exiled to Babylon. Once they paid for their sins, Isaiah could then announce that a day of release and hope was in the offing.
St. Luke begins his description of the ministry of John the Baptist with what must seem like a strange recital of even stranger names, and the average reader might well ask what the purpose of this all could be. It was done for only one reason and that was to show the historical and real circumstances that surrounded the Word which was spoken to John, and just as much, the world to which John would have to speak that Word. Luke is always intent on placing the Gospel in a definite historical context, symbolically saying that the Word is never proclaimed in a void, but in a unique, concrete situation needing to hear that Word. Through Baptism and Confirmation, you and I were commissioned to be the voice of God in a world that is increasingly alienated from Him – among the alienated are even those who were given the grace of incorporation into Christ as infants but who now live “as though God does not exist,” as John Paul II put it so starkly.
John proclaimed that the Lord and Messiah was coming – and that proclamation still needs to be made. Yes, Jesus is coming (as the street preachers remind but also as the Creed affirms). However, He requires a certain environment in which to appear, one which you and I must begin to create. Therefore, the very first act we must embark upon is a careful examination of conscience.
On the Second Sunday in Advent (the Baptist’s Sunday during that season of holy introspection and preparation), the Church dons the prophetic mantle of Isaiah and John the Baptist; she prays in the words of that day’s Collect: “May no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son.” What “earthly undertakings hinder” our progress in the Christian life? An undue attachment to material things; an obsession with sex and violence; a desire to make others into carbon copies of ourselves; a refusal to give unless we can count on a return; yearning for a “comfortable” religion without challenges; accommodation to a secular, indeed pagan, culture; God’s Law taking a back seat to peer pressure and public opinion in your life. All of these are hindrances to our reception of the Lord with joy, and they are considerations that call for our continued attention and vigilance. They are situations that demand a genuine change of heart, that metanoia preached by our saint of the day.
Our failures to respond to Christ’s call to perfection, believe it or not, delay the coming of His Kingdom — a kingdom which Isaiah speaks of as one of peace, joy, harmony, justice, love. As modern John the Baptists, these are the particular circumstances under which we must hear the Word of the Lord, and thus prepare the way.
How did the Baptist meet his end? As a martyr, that is, a witness to the sanctity of marriage – marriage as God established it from the beginning. He didn’t do that in generalities; he specifically and pointedly told King Herod that his involvement with Herodias was sinful, for which he paid the ultimate price. Isn’t it interesting that the stances the Church takes today on a variety of issues do not upset the modern pagans as much as her teachings on what some crudely call “the pelvic issues”; the New York Times doesn’t get exercised over our teachings on transubstantiation or the Trinity. However, talk about fornication, adultery, artificial contraception, abortion, same-sex activity, in vitro fertilization, clerical celibacy and continence, divorce and remarriage – and that’s an entirely different matter. Those who support what the Church teaches on these matters can expect nothing less than repudiation from a society that promotes “tolerance” for everything but Christian values. While no one has had his head chopped off for fidelity to traditional Christian principles – at least not yet – not a few have been ostracized socially and politically, and not a few have even lost their livelihoods. Yes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted decades ago, we have to be ready to pay “the cost of discipleship.”
Since today’s solemnity celebrates the birth of John, we should pay some heed to the joyous birth itself, which occurred for parents who were “hoping against hope” (Rm 4:18), not unlike Abraham and Sarah in similar circumstances centuries before. Truth be told, even Zechariah the priest thought it was too good to be true, for which unbelief he was struck dumb. When Zechariah comes to accept God’s way, his tongue is loosed and he sings out the beautiful canticle, the Benedictus, with which the Church greets the dawn every day. In one of the most tender scenes in all of Sacred Scripture, Zechariah looks into the face of his baby boy and sees the dawn of salvation coming about through the life and ministry of his son: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High” (Lk 1:76). But there’s also something in this for us who take up John’s prophetic mantle; Zechariah asserts that we shall “serve him without fear” (Lk 1:73). “Without fear!” What a grace, what a blessing. Some decades after John the Baptist, St. Paul could rhapsodize on this gift in these stirring words:
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:31-39).
John the Baptist would agree completely; in fact, it might not be too great a stretch to say that Paul may well have been energized by the life and witness of the Baptist, enabling him to follow his example all the way to his own beheading. We, too, need to be buoyed up by the figure of St. John when we are called upon to stand with Christ against all the modern Herods and Herodiases, being willing to go through “the loneliness of the long-distance runner,” but also serving God “without fear.”
St. John the Baptist, pray for us, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
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