Nativity of John the Baptist
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory
When the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son, a son who will go one to announce the coming of the long-promised Messiah, Zechariah gives voice to the doubts of his heart and asks, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." A perfectly reasonable question, one anyone of us might ask! Zechariah's question earns a stern rebuke and a punishment. He's struck speechless and will remain so until his son is born. Once John is born and Zechariah confirms in writing the infant's non-traditional name, his tongue is loosed and he sings a hymn of praise to God. The unusual events surrounding the conception and birth of John lead the people to ask, “What, then, will this child be?” This child will grow into a herald of the Lord, not only announcing the arrival of the Messiah but baptizing him as well, standing in witness at the Jordan when the Holy Spirit descends to confirm the Sonship of Jesus. John the Baptizer runs before the Christ, proclaiming the imminent fulfillment of God's promise to send among His people one who will restore all of creation to righteousness. For Christ, John is a forerunner, a harbinger; for us, he is an example, a model of joyful obedience to the Word once and always spoken.
John baptizes Jesus and hears the voice of the Father speak, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” John's ministry for all the years leading up to this moment has been a ministry of obedience, of listening to the Word being spoken. Conceived for a single purpose and born to give voice to God's promise of a Messiah, John roams as a prophet among the people, baptizing them with water, preparing them in repentance for the arrival of the Christ. Determined, maybe a little obstinate, certainly faithful, John's obedience to God's Word costs him his freedom on more than one occasion and eventually head—a price he no doubt willing paid. As our example of faithfulness, we have to ask: are we prepared to follow John into prison, all the way to the executioner's block? To answer this question, we have to answer another one first: what is our purpose as followers of the Christ?
Daily we called upon to distinguish between the means and the end of our baptismal vows; that is, we are called upon to remember the difference between what we have vowed to be and do and how we have vowed to accomplished these goals. Being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ makes us imperfect Christs and sets us on the way to becoming holy as God Himself is holy. To become Christs for others. That's our end as followers of Christ. The means we use to reach this perfected end flow out of our cooperation with God's gifts to each of us: we feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick, clothe the naked, bury the dead, announce mercy to the sinner, and love our enemies in the face of their hatred for us. Each of these can be a means to our end; they are not the end itself. If our end is to become Christ, then we can say with certainty –even if tinged with a little trepidation—that Yes we will follow John to prison and on to the executioner's block if necessary. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. does not require the kind of obedience to God's Word that John exemplified. However, becoming Christ requires just such obedience and more. Becoming Christ requires the clear, unambiguous commitment of the heart and mind, our whole person, to the single clarion truth that there is nothing more important, nothing more vital to our lives as creatures of a loving God than our undivided love for Him. Listening to His Word, His Word made flesh, and acting accordingly is the very center of our lives. Though this truth costs us nothing to acquire, it might cost us our lives to share. If so, we remember what the people said of John, “For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” And He is with us as well.
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