Sunday Sermon for June 24, 2018, the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Year B
Readings Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80
Today we celebrate the birth of a man who is important to us in a variety of ways. St. John the Baptist is, according to our Lord’s own words, the greatest man born of woman. For this reason alone it is proper we should celebrate his birth. But, the reason his birth is celebrated is not because he was the greatest.
In the Church’s calendar only three birthdays are celebrated: Jesus, Mary, and St. John the Baptist. These are the three people born without sin. Jesus is God, Mary was conceived without Original Sin, and St. John the Baptist had Original Sin removed from his soul at the time of the Visitation when he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb.
Being born without Original Sin does not make a person the greatest among those born of woman. It is a great start, but being the greatest has to do with what came after. Each of us, after all, had Original Sin removed from our souls at Baptism and God’s grace was infused into us. This does not make us greater than any other baptized person.
I think what makes St. John so great is the point St. Paul makes in the second reading regarding King David. The Lord testifies of him that he is: “a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.” St. John the Baptist did exactly this and, because he did the will of God as perfectly as possible, he is the greatest among us. For this reason we need to learn from him how we are to act.
I find it interesting that the first reading is actually about the Messiah. The Church certainly thought it was fitting for St. John the Baptist as well. There are several points in this reading that can be applied to John the Baptist: John was given his name from the womb, in fact, from before he was conceived; he lived a hidden life; it might appear on the surface that he toiled in vain. But, the reading goes on to say “And I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord.”
John the Baptist might be the premier example of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s teaching: it does not matter if you are successful; what matters is that you are faithful. Being one who was truly after God’s own heart, the Baptist was faithful in everything. He was willing to go into the wilderness alone, spending most of his adult life in prayer and penance preparing for the work to which God had called him.
When he was called by the Lord, he was obedient, going forth to preach and to baptize people for the forgiveness of their sins. So effective was his preaching that people from Jerusalem were willing to walk more than twenty miles to hear him and be baptized. The twenty miles is impressive, but where St. John was preaching was 7200 feet lower than Jerusalem; getting there would have been a challenge, getting home would have been even more difficult.
St. Paul says that Jesus was obedient even unto death. The same can be said of St. John the Baptist. He was not interested in drawing attention to himself. St. Luke quotes the Baptist: “What do you suppose me to be? I am not he.” With so many people coming to hear him, St. John could easily have been caught up in himself. His humility kept him from being swept away by the adulation of the crowds. He kept his focus on God, not on himself: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
On the day of his circumcision the people marveled when he was named John (God is gracious), and was not named after his father, Zechariah (the Lord remembers). Indeed, as Zechariah sang in his Canticle “the Lord has remembered His promise of mercy.” But, his son’s role was to prepare the way for the promise to be fulfilled; hence John’s name foretold his mission.
He was to turn the hearts of the children of Israel back to God and, therefore, to prepare a people for the Lord. Long before he could preach the message, he had to experience the graciousness of God. He knew the Lord from the time he spent in prayer, so his message was not just words, albeit true words, but a message spoken from the heart.
Because he spoke from experience and from the heart, the people were able to hear with their hearts, turn away from sin, and be prepared to receive our Lord. Pray that God will touch our hearts to be faithful, to know His graciousness and to do His will, and, thus, speak to the hearts of people, bringing them to true conversion to the Lord.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.