|The Solemnity of the Birth of
St. John the Baptist
Psalm 139:1-3, 13-14, 14-15
Luke 1:57-66, 80
What is a 21st-century North American Christian supposed to celebrate in the birth of John the Baptist? Of course, as the forerunner (and apparently also the mentor) of Jesus, he is a key figure in salvation history, and there is a long tradition of celebrating the birth of an important figure. But still, is there some special message for us in the Baptist’s birthday? This time around, what I’m hearing is HUMILITY. Let me explain. “Humility” means knowing your place, and it helps to know that the word comes from the Latin word, humus (“earth”). The humble person knows that he or she is a creature made from the earth (“dust thou art”) and truly has his or her feet “on the ground.” Humility does not mean groveling or bad-mouthing oneself. It means knowing one’s place, which includes the glorious sense of knowing that one is part of something greater than oneself—the very work of God!
Recall that something was flawed in his father’s faith when he heard the angelic announcement of his miraculous conception. Luke doesn’t make it explicit, but Zechariah’s faith was sufficiently flawed that he was struck temporarily mute, and he was unable to bless the crowd gathered in the temple precincts at the close of the afternoon sacrifice. In today’s reading—nine months and eight days later—we see the extended family gathered for the circumcision of the newborn, all set to name the child after his dad, when Elizabeth, apparently having learned of Gabriel’s mandate from Zechariah, insists on the name John. Acting as if Zechariah was deaf as well and dumb (and maybe he was), the family signals a request for his nomination, and he confirms Elizabeth’s insistence on John. What Elizabeth and Zechariah do here is a simple act of humility—the humility of obedience.
The reading from Acts recalls that the grown-up John, who mentored Jesus in his baptism movement, insisted that Jesus was greater than himself—indeed, that he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. Knowing his place, John played a crucial part on God’s life with the people of Israel and the revelation of Israel’s Messiah.
Cut now to Dallas and the meeting of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Watching them on C-Span last night, I was impressed with the humility of these men. I have learned to associate C-Span and legislators with congresspersons grandstanding for any possible constituents that may be among the TV audience. But these ecclesial legislators were clearly chastened men humbly attempting to find the right words to do the right thing in the formation of policy regarding the handling of clerics accused of sex-abuse. What a difference!
Humility, finding our real place “on the ground”—that’s what I think
we should find in the celebration of John the Baptist today. The
Roman Catholic church is undergoing a public humiliation these days.
That feels like bad news, and it is. But the good news is that we
are being purified. And we, along with out bishops, are learning
once again that the whole point of being part of the Church is responding
to the reality that we are part of something much greater than ourselves—greater,
even, than being priests and bishops. We are rediscovering that our
place—laity and clergy alike—is to serve God’s redemptive plan that we
are to serve one another—and the rest of the world—in the Spirit of Jesus.
That’s humility—which shows us to be both smaller and larger than we ever
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