THEME: THE BIRTH OF THE GREAT PROPHET
READINGS: Isaiah 49:1-6 / Acts 13:22-26 / Luke 1:57-66, 80.
Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist
Today is the Solemn feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist was a great prophet. Even before his conception, the angel Gabriel announced to Zachariah that John would be great in the sight of the Lord (Luke 1:15). Moreover, Jesus Christ Himself testified that John the Baptist was ‘more than a prophet’, and that ‘among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John Baptist’ (Matt. 11:9-11).
Being such a great personality, the feast of the birth of John the Baptist is a great occasion. So important is this feast that it replaces the Ordinary Sunday celebration in any year that it falls on a Sunday.
At the birthday party of a great personality, one is wiser who takes some inspirations from the good wishes and eulogies showered on the ‘celebrant’. So, let us also take some inspirations from the life of John the Baptist. What can we learn from the greatness of John the Baptist?
WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR JOHN’S GREATNESS?
The special way God prepared John, the unique mission God entrusted to him, and the faithful and successful manner he accomplished his mission, all these and more make John great. In fact, the first reading (Isaiah 49:1-6), though it was not a specific prophecy about John, sounds like a citation or tribute about the greatness of John.
The first reading says: ‘The Lord called me before I was born; from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name’. And this is certainly true of John the Baptist!
In fact, God considered John so special that his mother’s womb remained barren until he was conceived. In other words, Elizabeth’s womb was reserved for the conception and birth of only John (cf. Luke 1:5-25).
Secondly, even before his conception, God Himself gave the name ‘John’, as was announced by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:13). Though, it was a name borne by none of his family members, his parents insisted on naming him ‘John’ (Luke 1:60-61).
Thirdly, even before John was conceived, God had designed that he would never take wine or strong drink; rather he would be filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15).
Fourthly, even before John was conceived, God had outlined his ministry or mission. So the angel announced to his father, Zachariah: ‘He will turn many of the children of Israel to their God. He will also go before Him in the Spirit and power of Elijah . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (Luke 1:16-17).
THE SPECIAL MISSION
Thus, the special mission of John was clearly spelt out even before his conception.
With such a mission as the unique forerunner to the Saviour of the world, John preceded Jesus in conception, birth, desert experience, fasting, ministry of proclamation and baptism (2nd reading) as well as in his arrest and dying for the truth.
EXECUTING THE MISSION
According to the first reading, the servant of God said the Lord ‘made my mouth a sharp sword’. The mouth of the Baptist was sharpened not by the ‘spirit’ of the bottle, but by the Holy Spirit.
‘The prophet Elijah’, according to the book of Ecclesiasticus, ‘arose like a fire, his word flaring like a torch’ (Ecclesiasticus 48:1). So, John (who came in the spirit and power of Elijah) was very fiery in his words. For instance, he told the crowd that went to him for baptism: ‘Brood of Vipers who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance . . . every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire’ (Luke 3:7-9).
Furthermore, the first reading says that the Lord made his servant ‘into a sharpened arrow’. When arrows were used in battles, they were aimed at individuals. Likewise, the sharpened arrow of John effectively struck, for instance, King Herod and Herodias.
The sharp sword of the Lord, according to the first reading, was hidden in the shadow of his hand, and the sharpened arrow in his quiver. Similarly, the Baptist was prepared and hidden by the Lord in the desert until he began his ministry.
Again, the first reading says: ‘you are my servant . . . in whom I am glorified’. At a time when people thought John was the Messiah, he glorified Christ by saying: ‘I am not the one you imagine me to be and I am not fit to undo his sandals’ (Acts 13:25; second reading). And somewhere else, John says, Jesus must increase and he himself must decrease (John 3:30). Moreover, earlier on John proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29, 35). In short, John’s successful mission prepared the people for Christ’s glorious ministry, crowned with his glorifying death, resurrection and ascension.
The final ‘tribute’ to John from the first reading is that, the servant of God said: ‘while I was thinking, “I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing” . . . all the while my cause was with the Lord, my reward with my God. I was honoured in the eyes of the Lord’. This certainly was the experience of John when he was imprisoned by King Herod and he sent his messengers to ask if Jesus was the Messiah. Thus, while John initially thought he had toiled in vain, Jesus praised him as being ‘more than a prophet’ and the greatest ‘of all men born of women’ (Luke 7:18-28). And in dying for the truth, God has eternally honoured John in heaven!
Beloved, we have seen how great John the Baptist was, but God has not left us out. There is good news for us: Jesus says that God is offering us something greater than John experienced on this earth. Thus, after saying that John is the greatest of all men born of women, he added: ‘yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him’ (Matt. 11:11). In other words, of all men born into this world, John is the greatest, but ‘birth’ or entrance into the kingdom of heaven – that which God is offering us – is greater than what John experienced on this earth!
John the Baptist fulfilled the mission God entrusted to him by doing a lot of things, but I will highlight only four of them: humility, leading others to Christ, courageously defending the truth, and remaining steadfast in faith (even in the course of his imprisonment). May we also be given the grace of humility, leading others to Christ, courageously defending the truth, and steadfast faith!
Finally, I therefore pray that like John the Baptist:
- we will become humbler the more we achieve greatness in life, amen!
- we will eagerly lead souls to Christ the King, amen!
- we will always courageously stand by the truth, for Christ is the Truth, amen!
- And, in difficult times, our faith will grow even stronger, amen!
By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis