Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Welcoming the Dawn

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalms 71:1-2, 3-4a, 5-6ab, 15ab and 17; 1 Peter 1:8-12; Luke 1:5-17
Picture: CC Koshyk

Few things are more thrilling and truly awesome than a new birth. Even if we are merely watching a television documentary of an animal – wild or domesticated – going into labor, we somehow cannot help but be drawn into the excitement and the wonder of it. Our attention is captured. We are held in thrall. Perhaps it has something to do with the new possibilities that this event holds, possibilities that extend far beyond the mother and her newborn child. It’s as though we were faced with the poignant spectacle of the dawn breaking, a promising start to a marvelous new day. We find our hearts filled with expectation and hope, the full contours of which we are not yet fully aware. The words of the neighbors of Zechariah and Elizabeth in today’s gospel come quickly to mind: What will this child turn out to be?

But we cannot fail to acknowledge that there is also a shadow side to this experience. It’s not always easy to recognize, let alone to welcome the breaking of the dawn. For one thing, it is not without reason that birth is associated with labor. Pain is part of it. More than that, there are also other things that can stand in the way of a full and joyful acceptance of new life. Perhaps the parents are not ready. Either they are too young or too immature, too poor or too self-absorbed. Perhaps they want a boy, but it is girl who is asking to be born. Perhaps they are only willing to accept a perfectly normal child. But the one knocking on the door is blind or mongoloid or missing a few digits on one hand. In such situations, the temptation can be great to reject what is offered, to draw the curtains on the day that is breaking, to deny a space to the new life that is begging entrance into our world.

And let us, if only for a moment, broaden the horizons of our reflection. Isn’t it true that the new dawn of which we are speaking points beyond the literal birth of a baby? For isn’t there such a thing as being born again (see John 3)? And here we are not necessarily referring only to water baptism. Isn’t it also the case that in the midst of the various trials and tribulations that we may have to undergo from time to time – when we might be tempted to think that we have toiled in vain and have exhausted ourselves for nothing – we often find ourselves being invited to accept the coming to birth of new possibilities? When a beloved child decides to leave home, for example, along with the pain of separation, isn’t there also the promise of a more mature relationship between parents and offspring? And yet, which of us finds such labor pains easy to bear? Who among us truly finds it easy to accept the breaking of such a dawn, especially when it also involves the breaking of our hearts?

Which is why the grace that is being offered to us on this feast – the grace of the birth of St. John the Baptist – is so precious. For Zechariah and Elizabeth could so easily have desired that their newborn son should take on the role of the Messiah, just as John himself could very easily have come to covet that same honor for himself. And they might well have allowed such prideful cravings to cause them to reject the new life that was being offered to them. Instead what we find is a humble and grateful acceptance of all that is coming to birth. In spite of pressure from their neighbors, the parents name their son John (Yohanan = God shows favor). And John himself demonstrates his acceptance of the role marked out for him by proclaiming: I am not the one you imagine me to be… one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal. And he will courageously live out this role even when it thrusts him into the dark dungeons of Herod and beneath the sharp sword of the executioner.

As our reflection draws to a close, this brief dialogue from the Lord of the Rings comes to mind:

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

How are we being invited to recognize and welcome the dawn today?


  1. One thing that impressed me a lot during a Great Bible Adventure study session some time ago was the way Jeff Cavins linked "love" with "suffering".

    He explained how the word "serpent" in the Hebrew text was equivalent to that used for the "leviathan". So according to Genesis, Eve was actually threatened by a sea monster and the first Adam, fearful of suffering, dared not stand up (and "lay down his life", so to speak) to protect his wife. It was only much later that the second Adam (Jesus), in choosing to lay down his life for all mankind, managed to undo the terrible consequences of the original sin (which now looks like "lack of love" and not plain disobedience).

    I cannot remember his eloquent words now. But I remember the lump in my throat and how moved I was by the message that when one loves deeply enough, one can overcome the fear of suffering.

  2. "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened."

    I sure can identify with this feeling.

    However, Frodo has Gandalf for mentor, Sam for almost constant companion and other members of the ring's fellowship for support. I've often wondered just where are my Gandalf, Sam and true fellowship?


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