Friday, June 22, 2007

Saint John the Baptist & Camp Lebanon

I was asked to give a reflection on the Gospel reading for this Sunday during our Parish family weekend at Camp Lebanon. I was also given this opportunity last year on the same occasion. This year, for the sake of the attendees, my family, and myself, I have decided to write it out and read it instead of relying on my non-existant public speaking abilities. Kind of a tough spot to be in since Fr. B will be saying Mass the night before on the same Gospel.

I wanted to post what I plan on reading this weekend now since last year I was accused of lifting material from Fr. B's homily - eventhough I gave my reflection before He gave his homily. To those who spread these vicious and vile rumors let it be known: I know who you are. Yet I choose not to settle the score here, now, in cyberspace; I choose to regain my honor on the battle field (no hiding behind the Collar) of the great Camp Lebanon Floor Hockey Smackdown - 2007 .

There's trouble coming to Upsula this weekend, oh yes there is ... and it's traveling in a 12 passanger van.

Gospel Reading: Luke 1:57-66, 80
Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, "Not so; he shall be called John." And they said to her, "None of your kindred is called by this name." And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, "His name is John." And they all marveled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What then will this child be?" For the hand of the Lord was with him. And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

"The Church observes the day of John [the Baptist's] birth as a holy day: none of the fathers is thus solemnly commemorated. We celebrate John's birth as we celebrate Christ's. I cannot let this feast pass in silence without a sermon..." (St Augustine, Sermon 293).

Of all the feast days the Church has, only three of them celebrate the birthdates of a saint; Christmas, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the birth of John the Baptist. Today, as the Gospel makes clear, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. While it may not seem like it, this feast day is one of the oldest and most important feasts of the year. Though not an official teaching of the Church, a pious and probable belief among Catholics is that John the Baptist was born without original sin (though conceived with it). Jesus said of John, “No man born of woman is greater than John”. Now, this is quite an endorsement. So, why was John’s birth so important?

Lets look at the setting in which today’s Gospel takes place. Around 450 years before John’s birth, the minor Prophet Malachi was sent by God to speak to the Israelites. At that time, the priests of the temple had become corrupt and begun to loose their faith. The worship they provided for the people had become sterile. But Malachi didn’t only bring a message of conviction; he also brought a promise of hope. He told the people that one day God Himself would come to the temple, and that before that day he would send a messenger to prepare for His arrival.

After Malachi, God’s voice was not heard by Israel. No prophets were sent to speak by God in His name; a silence fell over Israel. Then one day, a priest by the name of Zechariah was performing his priestly duty at the temple when an angel appeared. The angel told Zechariah that he and his wife, who was getting up in years, would have a son who would be a great prophet and that he would “go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

With John’s birth God broke the silence and made His voice heard again in Israel. But the message it brought was different. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” John cried out. The ageless call of repentance was now combined in the same breath with an imminent reason for hope.

John in many ways held a position that was a bridge from the old covenant to the new. Though he was circumcised into the old covenant, he prepared the people for a new covenant with God by his call for repentance and baptism. He foreshadowed the sacrament of baptism which Paul tells us in Colossians now has replace circumcision. It was also John who pointed the Jewish people of the old covenant toward the Messiah of the new.

Now in the Gospel for yesterday and today, we have a story within a story. An angel appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and a priest of Israel. When the angel announces to him that he and his wife would have a son, he wasn’t able to believe. His problem was that he lacked faith, and his wife was barren, just as the people of Israel were during the time of Malachi.

As punishment, Zechariah would be unable to speak; he would be silent. And not until the child was born and Zechariah followed the will of God by giving him a name that was unknown to his family, a name meaning “God is merciful”, was he able to once again speak. Like Zechariah once again being heard by his neighbors, through this child named John, God would once again be heard by Israel and her neighbors. As others marveled at how God showed mercy and blessed Zechariah and Elizabeth with a son, the whole world would soon marvel at how God would bless it and show mercy on it with His son.

It can be said that John the Baptist was not only the last Old Testament prophet, but also the first Christian martyr. He was willing to look evil in the eye and call it by name, and eventually this would cost him his head. He would pick up his cross and carry it before he ever knew there would be a cross carried. He gave his life preparing the way for Christ, he was the voice crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord”.

There are two reasons the Church, in Her wisdom, marks today as the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. First, because from scripture we know that John was born 6 months before Jesus. So, since we celebrate Christmas on December 25th, celebrating John’s birth on June 24th makes sense. But there is another reason. John, when asked by his disciples about Jesus, said to them, “He must increase; I must decrease.” Last Thursday, June 21st, a special event occurred – the summer solstice. The summer solstice is the day of the year that the day is the longest. From now on, the days will get shorter and shorter, the amount of light less and less. But once we reach Christmas, this will reverse itself.

Like John the Baptist, we all need to take the time to examine our lives and find the places where we need to decrease and allow Christ to increase regardless of how painful and difficult it may be.

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