By Sister Karen M. Cavanagh, C.S.J.
“BEFORE I SPOKE a word You were singing over me … before I took a breath You breathed Your life in me …” Cory Asbury (Reckless Love)
This weekend, we interrupt Ordinary Time to celebrate the Solemnity of the birth of St. John the Baptist. I must admit that as I looked toward this Sunday I thought, “Solemnity”? “St. John the Baptist”?
I did a bit of research liturgically and scripturally and it came clear. It was a meaningful learning so allow me to share. Solemnities are the celebrations of greatest importance and begin the night before with evening prayer and a vigil Mass, then continue throughout the next day.
Every Sunday is a solemnity celebrating Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, that is, the Paschal Mystery. The Holy Days, along with the feasts of Mary, St. Joseph and the Sacred Heart are solemnities. The other saints who have such solemnity on their day can be counted on one hand: Peter and Paul, a country or congregation’s patron and the birth of John the Baptist on June 24.
Back to the Womb
So why John the Baptist? The two images I have are John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan and a scruffy-looking man emerging from a desert life wearing animal skins, eating grasshoppers and honey and proclaiming repentance. Today, however, the solemnity brings us back, before his beginning, before he took a breath or spoke a word.
Through the message of an angel, God was singing a new testament in salvation history. A child, John, filled with the Spirit, will go before the Lord and will turn God’s children back to their God. This John will fearlessly announce and point the way to Jesus, Teacher, Savior, Messiah. He will show God’s children how to follow.
An aging couple resigned to being childless bore the pain of cultural embarrassment and personal sadness. They performed faithfully the Jewish rituals and probably wondered why the angel of life had not passed over the womb of their home. Did such fidelity from late-in-life folk (Zechariah and Elizabeth) make it possible for God’s angel to ease the fears of younger folk (Mary and Joseph)?
Did it help them to find the voice to say: “Let it be done”?
Elizabeth conceives a son and six months later that infant, John, still in her womb, “announces” the Lord with joy, leaping movement and his mother’s proclamation that she is in the presence of the Lord and His Mother. Upon his birth Zechariah, John’s father, proclaims: “You my child shall be called the prophet of the Most High … You shall go before the Lord to prepare a way.”
“From the beginning” God forms John for mission.
Formed for Mission
Both Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of being carefully and intimately formed in their mothers’ wombs for a servanthood and mission with worldwide consequences, to be a light for nations and a proclaimer of God’s ways. Is this a call for us? Is our call a “from the beginning” one?
All of the readings – the vigil and today – offer a powerful reflection on the mystery of vocation and the mission of the Church (That’s us!). John the Baptist’s birth and life are a steadfast testimony to servanthood, to courage, to truth, to humility and to the power of the God’s Spirit working in a people.
From the womb, from the desert, at the river’s edge, along the pathway, with his followers, from a prison cell and at his dying, John’s unwavering fidelity points to the One Who is to come, has come and will come again.
Throughout Jesus’ public ministry we hear of John in every Gospel:
“ … John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near … prepare the way of the Lord …” Matthew 3: 1-3;
“One more powerful than me is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the straps on his sandals’ …” Mark 1: 7
“… Make His way straight … level what’s high, fill what’s low, straighten what’s crooked and smooth what is rough … see the salvation of God.” Luke 3: 4-6
“He must increase, but I must decrease … Look, there is the Lamb of God, He is the One … follow.” John 3: 30; John 1: 29-43
Truth at All Costs
And in every Gospel we hear how John’s truthful words to an arrogant and lustful ruler cost him his head, but added to his crown of sainthood and solemnity.
Both Matthew and Luke put this question and answer on the lips of Jesus: “What were you looking for? A reed shaken by the wind?… someone dressed in royal robes? … A prophet? I tell you, more than a prophet! … I tell you, among those born of women there is none greater than John.”
“He was not himself the light but bore witness to the Light…” John 1:8
Let us pray for each other that through the fidelity and intercession of John the Baptist, we might become faithful witnesses to God’s ways in our world by our actions, words, service and prayerful discipleship.
May Christ’s “from the beginning” light in us bear light in others.
Readings for the Solemnity Of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Isaiah 49: 1-6
Psalm 139: 1B-3, 13-14AB, 14C-15
Acts 13: 22-26
Luke 1: 57-66, 80
Sister Karen M. Cavanagh, C.S.J., a trained spiritual director and retreat facilitator, is a pastoral associate/family minister at St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish, Jamaica.