Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, 2017.
We heard these words in our second reading: “Before His coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” This is what Saint Paul tells us, as recorded by Saint Luke, the author of both the Gospel by His name and the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus was coming into the world—coming into relationship with the world (he already was in relationship because all things are made through Him, so we mean coming into relationship in the sense of being able to be recognized and to be available through sure and certain means); He was coming into relationship, and coming into the hearts of people. And before Him, ahead of Him, as the forerunner, was John, son of Elizabeth and Zachariah—indeed, a holy family the members of which the Church has long venerated as Saint Elizabeth, Saint Zachariah, and Saint John the Baptist, the nativity of whom we celebrated today.
Saint John is a major saint of the Church. He plays a major role in the economy of salvation—that is, how salvation actually works not as an idea or good-feeling sentiment, not as the theme of a social club, but as an actual reality that has happened, and is happening, and, God-willing, will continue to happen to actual people in actual lives. See how prominent he is in the New Testament. Saint John is the first person we meet in the Gospel of Mark, he is introduced at length in the Gospel of Matthew, he is prominent in the Gospel of Luke, and his ministry is raised to the status of a mystic in the Gospel of John.
Although it has been said for two-thousand years that the Blessed Mother of God, Saint Mary, is the model disciple and our primary example on how to follow Jesus Christ, Saint John the Baptist would be in the small group of Saints in the second position—which is not to take anything away from any of the other Saints of the Church, because each has a crucial role to play in the economy of salvation. Let it always be remembered that the best interpreters of the Bible are not the preachers, not the theologians, not the Bishops, Priests, and Deacons—but the Saints, because their lives make real the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they remind us in myriad ways that God intends the Good News of Jesus to interact with the gifts and talents He has given each and every one of us, gifts He wants us to become aware of, understand, and act upon.
The Church remembers, celebrates, and asks intercession of Saint John because His gift was to announce the coming of Jesus Christ and through his words and actions, preach repentance—and then, get out of the way. We remember, celebrate, and ask Saint John to pray for us because we want his gifts to be our gifts. His gifts are the foundation of Mission, and the Church is always on Mission. The Church is always to announce the coming of Jesus Christ—coming into homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and hearts. And the Church is always, through the words and actions of Her members according to individual gifts and talents, to preach repentance and then get out of the way.
Let us remember: Repentance means far more than recognizing failings; that is part of it, but more fundamentally it means lifting up our hearts to God. This is one reason each Mass sings those very words—“Lift up your hearts,” called technically the “sursum corda,” Latin for “lift up your hearts”—because by making it part of our bodily behavior at Mass, we are taught to make it a habit in our day to day lives. John lifted up his heart to God his entire life—even, it is safe to say, in the womb of his mother, Saint Elizabeth, who told Mary that the babe in her womb leapt at the greeting words of Mary as she entered Elizabeth and Zachariah’s house. Jesus spoke through His Mother, and whether it reached John through the ears of his mothers, or directly through her uterine wall, the presence of Jesus, mediated by Mary, was unmistakable and palpable, and it made for joy.
Brothers and sisters, let the increase of joy be an indication that we look for as we engage in Mission. The birth of a child is an occasion for great joy, and the nativity of this great Saint is an opportunity to thank God not only for the joy of his birth, but the joy we have felt throughout our lives at the birth of little baby girls and boys. When we are truly seeking and serving Christ in the people we meet, live near, work with, and encounter, let us look for those moments of joy as indications that we are doing Mission correctly, that we are being obedient disciples. Let us preach a baptism of repentance in Tazewell County. Let our lives wake people up to a reality of joy and love that indeed reaches beyond the conditions of time and space. Let who we are radiate the Light of Christ to others, radiate that divine Light that shines in the darkness. Let our lives bear witness to the Light, as Saint John bore witness to the Light.
And let us always know that when this happens—and the Church teaches not that it might happen, but that it will, in communities with a healthy and robust prayer life—it is never us who are the source of this Light that burns the hearts of others, but Almighty God, by whose providence His servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of His Son our Savior. Indeed may we follow his example—to constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for truth’s sake.
Saint John the Baptist, pray for us. Amen.
Cover image “Nativity John Baptist” by Shakko is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original