Thursday, June 23, 2022

Birth of John the Baptist

Something utterly unprecedented in God’s graciousness was about to occur, something so exceptional in Israel’s history, that a forerunner would be essential, someone to prepare the hearts of the people for God’s radical inbreaking. John is that man. His call to repentance, to absolute honesty, justice, and care for the poor will prepare Israel for the immense reversal that will take place in the person of Christ Jesus. For Jesus will indeed be the Messiah, but not the one everyone expected.

And this morning we look back at the infancy and early childhood of John and notice with him the Lord calling him even “from his mother’s womb.” John will kick and stir in the long-barren womb of his mother Elizabeth at the nearness of Christ in Mary. And miraculously when his father names him John, the name given him by an angel, his mute father’s tongue will be loosed. And so today the local folks all wonder, "What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” We might also imagine what they said, as they saw him as a young man sneak off to the desert, and then preach and baptize with such urgency. “Not surprising at all; I always saw it in him,” they might say. “He was always different, not like the other kids; a kind of fire in him; a thoughtful kid; he liked to pray…” Maybe like things our friends and family said when we came to the monastery.

So it is that we celebrate today a kind of feast of sacred retrospection. Sacred retrospection. Tradition reflects back on the life of John the Baptizer and wonders at the holiness and uniqueness it sees even from his birth. We know this is a typical motif in Scripture and in accounts of many of the saints’ lives. And these stories were very often depicted in art. A favorite example is a relief of the infant St. Nicholas resting in his mother’s left arm. As she offers him her right breast to nurse him, Baby Nicholas raises both of his little hands, as if to say, “No thanks, Mom. I’m good.” Amazingly, it seems he has weaned himself; already quite a little ascetic and brimming with self-control even as a baby. The message is clear: Nicholas’ sanctity was obvious, even from any early age. Really? To the believing mind perhaps it’s not as ditsy as it sounds, but instead an unsophisticated expression of the truth which faith offers us.

Today on this Birthday feast of the Baptist, we celebrate a God who is constantly “acting on our behalf, out of love for us;” God drawing us to our truest identity. And since God preserves the universe in being, we believe that he acts in and with every creature in each and all its activities. This is not to say we are stuck in some plan, some occult predestination, but that God is always, always calling, beckoning us, drawing us to himself, longing to fill us with himself, drawing into the Trinity. We name this divine Providence.

And if today’s Solemnity strikes us as somewhat folkloric, this is not to diminish its truth. We are invited to look back and notice the finger of God - God acting in John’s life, and in our own. And so jubilantly we imagine John chanting to us with the Psalmist, “I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.” Each of us is invited to do the same, to reflect on our own lives with a kind of road-back-to-Jerusalem-from-Emmaus insight - “It was the Lord all the time, though I did not recognize him. It was you Lord, calling, using anything at all to bring me to you, to my truth, to the secret for which I was made.” It was, it is God’s finger in my life day in day out, all through the years.

This is what our candidates discover as they compose their autobiographies and tell us their stories in preparation for entrance, a kind of prayerful inventory that notices the earliest echoes of God’s call, what was always there, though they might not have named it that back then. 

In the end each of us is meant to say with Isaiah, “The Lord called me from my mother’s womb; he pronounced my very name…” Divine Providence had been at work all the time in our individual stories, in our personal histories, through all the blessings and reversals. These graces must be named and celebrated as God’s work in us, through us, for us.

God’s Providence is with us; God behind and before us, using anything at all, everything to draw us to himself. And so he invites us once again to this altar to our ultimate identity: Holy Communion, Holy Communion with him and with one another. And if our hearts leap for joy as did the infant John in Elizabeth’s womb, it is a good thing for the Lord Jesus is indeed very near.

Domenico GhirlandaioThe Birth  of the Baptist, fresco in  the Cappella Tornabuoni of  Santa Maria Novella, Florence.  Homily by one of the monks.