[Homily: Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. 6.23.12]
Normally, the memorial of a saint coincides with the day of his or her death. For the day of a saint’s death on earth, we believe, is the day of that saint’s entrance into heaven. In celebrating a saint’s life, this is essentially what we are celebrating: his or her being conjoined to the victory of the Risen Lord, his or her ecstatic union with the loving Father, as the Prodigal Son was reunited with the Father in a warm embrace.
In the case of John the Baptist however, as in the case of Mary, the Church celebrates their day of nativity. We have a celebration of the beheading of John as we have a celebration of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven; these mark the end of their earthly lives. But because of the extraordinary call given these two human beings from the womb to play a key role intertwined with the life of Jesus in the mystery of salvation, the nativity of Mary is celebrated on September 8, while today we celebrate the nativity of John the Baptist.
Even before John the Baptist was born, the Lord called him to his service. This is reflected in the text we heard from Isaiah, in this liturgy applied to John: “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” (Is 49:1-3).
In this text, the specialness of John’s birth is signaled in his being called from his mother’s womb. From the womb he is set aside for the Lord. As the angel announces, he is conceived in the womb of Sara, an old lady long known to be barren; his conception is more the action of God rather than of man. “You have formed me in my inmost being,” the Psalm for today says, “You knit me in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:16). So John is conceived despite the incredulity and cynicism of his father, who was struck dumb because he did not believe that with God nothing is impossible. His speech returns only when contrary to family tradition, he yields to God’s redemptive power, and allows God to name his child. As the angel had announced ought be, Zachary insists, “John is his name!” which means, “God is benevolent.”
When Zachary’s mouth was opened and his speech returned, in praising God, he articulates the calling, the mission, of John: “…You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” (Lk 1:77-76).
John was a prophet, different from other people in his time. He emerged from the desert, from the wilderness, clad in the skin of animals, used to a diet of what was most commonly available, milk and honey. Different, he inspired awe, allowing people in his austerity and asceticism to recognize an unusual presence of interiority, an underlying dimension sanctity. From the great mysterious spaces of this desert, his was a voice crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths…” (Lk 3:4a). It was not a weak voice; it thundered with the urgency of his mission: The Lord is coming. Prepare! To prepare, repent, return to the Lord! His baptism was a ritual of cleansing based on repentance. To those who may have thought his baptism was mere external ritual, he cried, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance… Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!” (Lk 3:7.9). His preaching was as concrete as it was powerful: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Lk 3:11). To tax collectors he said, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed” (Lk 3:13). To soldiers he said: “do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages” (Lk 3:14). It was prophetic work, stating the truth, setting things right! People were drawn to him, listened to him, followed him!
He had a strong following. But when Jesus commenced his public life, John deferred to him immediately. “I am baptizing you with water,” he told his followers, “but there is one mightier than I who is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16). From then on, John’s function would be to lead his followers to Jesus. “He must increase, I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
Nevertheless his prophetic work continued. He criticized Herod Antipas, already married, for his open, adulterous affair with Herodias. For this, he was arrested and thrown into jail. When Salome danced for the Herod, Herod invited her to ask of him whatever she wished. Coached by her mother, Herodias, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The rash promise was kept. The Precursor was martyred.
Today we recall his mysterious birth, his unusual vocation, his ascetic lifestyle, his courageous prophecy, his denunciation of wrong, his arrest and his martyrdom. We recall how it was he who pointed at Jesus as the Messiah, “Behold, there is the Lamb of God, there is he who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:36). In now recalling how he prepared people for the coming of the Lord, perhaps we must ask ourselves an abidingly valid question: are we prepared for his coming. Has he in fact come for us? Or is he yet to come? Many of us may take for granted that he has come, and think that having encountered Jesus, we are way beyond the Precursor’s ambit of influence. But John’s way of preparing for God’s coming may not be irrelevant to us: Whoever has two houses may wish to share with the person who has none. Whoever has two cavans of rice may wish to share with the person who has none. Whoever deals with others must not take advantage of them. Do not extort. Do not falsely accuse. Be satisfied with what you earn. Do not take to yourself a woman or man you ought not to. Do not puff up your ego, and think you have no need of redemption, no need of Jesus. In the end, you do. We do. In the end, as John said, “It is he who takes away the sin of the world,” and for him we must be prepared. Therefore, he must increase; we must decrease.