Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist
Picture: cc hectore
My dear friends, have you ever found yourself at a party feeling bored out of your mind? Perhaps it’s an acquaintance’s birthday celebration, or the wedding banquet of a distant relative. And you just don’t see what all the fuss is about. You’ve managed to drag yourself to the place, but you just can’t bring yourself to celebrate. To truly share the joy. Instead, you feel like you couldn’t care less. You wish you were somewhere else. Or, worse still, you may even find yourself openly criticising the food or the service, the bride’s dress or her make-up… Ever feel like that?
I’m not sure why this happens. Why, at times, I just don’t seem able to do what appears to come so naturally to those neighbours and relations of Elizabeth in the gospel. To share someone else’s joy as if it were my own. Perhaps it’s a flaw in my personality, or in my society or culture. This tendency to self-absorption. This inability to care deeply about anything or anyone unless it has something to do with ME. Whatever may be the cause, the result is that I often need help. Help to enter the joy of a celebration like the one we have here today: the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. I need help to see what relevance this celebration has for us. For ME.
This, I believe, is precisely what our Mass readings provide for us today: Help to appreciate the deeper relevance of this celebration for me. And I receive this help by embarking on a path of reflection. Which I may begin by asking myself the question what? or whom? What or whom are we celebrating today? The answer may seem painfully obvious. We are celebrating a birth! The birth of John the Baptist! Which is true. And this alone should be enough to make us excited and joyful. Especially since we believe that John played a key role in preparing the way for Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
But why then am I still not impressed? Not even interested? Perhaps I need to go on to see that our readings do not speak to us only about the day when John was born. Instead the gospel goes on to speak also about the events surrounding his circumcision, and even about what happened to him when he grew much older. Indeed, the first reading doesn’t even mention John the Baptist at all. How could it, since it was written a long time before John was born? Instead, the reading speaks about how a prophet receives or renews his vocation. And, more than that, how this vocation, this call of the prophet, is also a means of salvation. Salvation not just for the prophet himself. And not just for his own people. But for the whole world. I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
My dear friends, pondering our readings more deeply, we find that what we are celebrating today is not just the birth of a baby who lived thousands of years ago, but the beginnings of a vocation. A call, addressed not just to a single person in the past, but to every person down through the ages. Addressed directly even to us. To you and to me. A call that, once accepted, gains for us, for me, the gift of salvation, of fullness of life. What we celebrate today is the birth not just of a baby, but of a vocation. And not just of a vocation, but of salvation. Not just for him, or for them, but also for us, for me.
Even so, walking this path of reflection may still not be enough to awaken my interest. To cure my boredom. To help me appreciate the deeper significance of this celebration for me. For that to happen, perhaps what I need is to see possible points of contact between the readings and my own life. I need to ask myself the question where? Where do I find myself in this story of baby, vocation and salvation?
The readings provide us with at least three possible points of contact. The first is the place of preparation. A place that the readings call the womb. The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb… This is a place of silence and secrecy. Even of apparent barrenness and waiting. Contrary to what we may expect, this may not be such a comfortable place to be. Indeed, it may even be, for some of us, a place of self-doubt and discouragement. Where, after years of effort and hard work, like the prophet, I am led to think that I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing. Ever felt like that? For this place is not just a womb, but also a wilderness. A place where I am gradually, even painfully, fashioned in secret and moulded in the depths of the earth.
Thankfully, this is not a destination, but only a transition. When the time is right, the place of preparation gives way to the place of recognition. The place where the prophet finally realises his true calling. Where she finally receives her true name. Not just the name that is printed on a birth certificate or passport. But the one engraved on one’s heart. His name is John. A name celebrating not the achievements of humanity, but the graciousness of God (Yehohanan = The Lord is gracious). Graciousness not just in giving someone an assignment to complete, but an identity to assume. A relationship to embrace. So that, like Zechariah, I may be prompted to raise my voice in praise of God. And, with the prophet and psalmist, I may exclaim: all the while my cause was with the Lord, my reward with my God… I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation. Have you perhaps experienced what it’s like to finally recognise God’s call?
Then, eventually, if we are patient and generous enough, the places of preparation and recognition finally lead us to the place of action. Where the baby in the womb, and the youth in the wilderness, finally become the prophet in the world. Courageously and diligently proclaiming the tremendous good news of the coming king. I am not the one you imagine me to be; that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal.
The birth of baby and vocation and salvation. The places of preparation and recognition and action. Processes and positions that produce the prophet of God. One ready to shine out with the light of the Lord’s coming, in a world still so often engulfed in the darkness of self-absorption. This is why we celebrate today. This is the cause of our joy. And, in the words of the second reading, this message of salvation is meant not just for others. It is meant for you! For us! For ME!
My dear friends, all you who fear God, what must we do to experience and enter more fully into this joyful mystery today?