Homily for the Feast of the Solemnity of John the Baptist
At St. Martin dePorres, June 24, 2001
"What then will this child be?"
Today's feast could easily seem a bit out of order. After all, we've just completed the Easter season, ending with Pentecost and Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi. The real big feasts. We're entering upon that long period the church calls "ordinary time", lasting from now until the first Sunday of Advent next December. It involves that rhythm of reflecting on the day-to-day living out of our Baptism in everyday life.
And then the church inserts this special feast honoring John the Baptist? It looks like we're going backwards. What's going on?
Chronologically it really doesn't 'make sense'. But spiritually it may teach us some important things we need to know about daily living.
The readings all highlight the unique call and significance of this man John.
The Gospel begins "When the time arrived for Elizabeth. . ." And from recent weeks we now know that that is Luke's way of giving us a heads-up. When he uses that phrase he's alerting us to the fact that something special is about to take place. Remember, that is the phrase he used for Mary's time to give birth; it was the phrase for the day on which Jesus began his ascent to Jerusalem for his final mission; and it was the phrase for the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost. So John's arrival is important.
The story is highlighted by elements of mystery. Zechariah has been struck dumb because he questioned the whole pregnancy, and now his tongue is loosed. There is that business of choosing a name which had never been used in their family history. (And some of you may have experienced how unsettling that can be in some families! 'They're calling her what?'). The whole event makes the neighbors nervous and fearful; they gossip among themselves. "What then will this child be?"
The church obviously wants us to see John from the perspective of the prophecy of Isaiah, about the servant who is coming. The Lord calls him from his mother's womb; his word will be a sharp sword cutting through and making people choose. The servant feels he has accomplished little, but the Lord says he will enlighten not just the people of Israel but all the nations. His word will reach the ends of the earth.
The point of it all is that God is in charge. God has a place and a mission for this child. As the Psalmist says, God probes and knows 'when I sit and when I stand, my journeys and my rest', everything. This child is fearfully, wonderfully made. God has something to be accomplished through him.
"What then will this child be?"
You see, it's not just about John, it's really about each one of us: we -- you and I -- are wonderfully made, called and named by God even from our conception, known through and through. And each of us has a unique mission.
Who are we, each one of us? Like John we know "I am not he". None of us is the Messiah. We are not worthy to untie the string of his sandal. But like John each of us is called to be a voice, to point to Jesus, to light the way for others, toe proclaim who is the Way. By Baptism each of us has a prophetic calling, to proclaim the Good News.
If nothing else we are, as John puts it, to tell "what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life".
All around us the next generation, those who are coming after us, needing to grow into the fullness of life. They are searching, looking for signs of what life is all about. And they are looking at us, whether we know it or not.
For a moment I'm going to change my role here and become a movie critic. I want to recommend a film. It's a bit old now but still very rich. It's called Avalon and if you've never seen it I recommend that you stop by Blockbuster and rent it. It's about a Jewish family in Baltimore, moving from about 1915 through the 60's. They go through all the cultural transitions; they experience tragedy and starting over, gradually moving up economically.
But through the film the director slips in scenes of the kids, watching and wondering and absorbing from the family adults. In one great Thanksgiving scene the adults are in the dining room getting into a wild argument, and the camera pans to show the kids sitting on the steps to the second floor, out of sight of their parents but taking it all in. (I can remember doing that as a kid, maybe you can, too.) Or there's the 4th of July parade. All the adults are watching, but the camera has the view of the kids trying to see it all from behind the adults, watching through their legs. The heritage is being passed on.
Let me tell you a true experience I heard a couple tell me. The husband had never been one to communicate very well; he kept his feelings hidden. And then he and his wife went on a Marriage Encounter and he had a wonderful breakthrough. He got in touch with all sorts of stuff in him. And he became a quick apostle.
At the end of the Encounter the leaders suggested that the couples go home and invite their children to feel free to share with them their deepest feelings and questions, knowing they would be received with no threat. One of the children was a 17-year-old boy who was into every problem teenagers get into. He sulked and wouldn't participate in anything, especially with his father. The father had basically written him off as a lost cause.
In his enthusiasm the father told the kids at the table they could bring up anything they had been afraid to talk about or ask. There was an awkward silence. And then surprisingly the 17-year-old said, "I've got a question I always wanted to ask you, Dad." The father was excited; the method might really work! He said, "Sure, son, whatever you want to ask." And the boy said, "What does Eucharist mean to you? I know what it means to my mother; I can see it in the way she lives. But I've sat in the back of the church for years watching you go up to Communion and asking myself, 'What does all that really mean to him?'" The father broke down at the realization of what the son was communicating. He had never realized that his life was affecting his son.
We have the mission of communicating to this next generation that each of them without exception is 'fearfully, wonderfully made'. Each one was known by God in their mother's womb; each one has a unique name in God's eyes, a unique calling and mission.
It's not a matter of telling them what they shouldn't do, what to avoid. People have tried "Just Say No" and by itself it won't work. Jesus' method was never all about don'ts. He said, "Look at me; follow me" and he showed the people by his actions. He communicated to people their infinite dignity and worth, by the way he respected them. He showed that they were chosen and loved and valuable, that they had a calling that was uniquely theirs.
And that is our mission. "What then will these children be?" What they have learned to be, from adults like you and me. We may think they aren't learning -- but they are watching.
And we will only fulfill our mission if we are convinced of our own worth and dignity and mission. We can do it only if we are men and women of prayer, convinced that God has a calling for each of us; if we search it out, every day. We have a world in our hands: the world of our children, our family, our neighborhood, our places of work, our city. We are not the messiah, we don't control how those worlds will respond. But we can be light to our worlds, we can proclaim Good News, we can point to Jesus the Way.
As we receive the body and blood of the Lord, let us ask for the gift to fulfill our baptismal calling fully, in those worlds where God wants us to make a difference.