June 23-24, 2001, Birth of John the Baptist
John the Baptist is certainly a pivotal character in our religion. St. Augustine echoes Jesus in saying there is no one greater the John born of woman. He comments that of all the saints and fathers of the church, only John has both his birth and his death celebrated.
When the early Christians were trying to discern their identity as unique from their Jewish heritage, they saw in John someone who bridged the gap between their old Jewish testament and their new Christian testament. So the way they told the story of John the Baptist emphasizes this bridging, this transition, through a series of differences and common elements.
We have John the Baptist being born of aging parents, older than natural childbearing years; Jesus is born of the young virgin. The announcement of Johnís conception is met with disbelief, striking Zechariah mute for 9 months; the announcement of Jesusí conception is met with complete faith as Mary speaks her fiat, ďLet it be done unto me according to your word.Ē
The stories root John the Baptist firmly in the Jewish tradition as well. Todayís gospel tells of his circumcision, and he is grouped with the great prophets, Moses and Elijah. One commentator I read says that Luke does this to insure the Theophilus, to whom the Gospel and Acts are directed, as well as those Roman citizens who would hear it, would treat the budding Christianity as a Jewish sect, thereby granting Christians the same immunity from having to worship the Roman Gods as Jews enjoyed.
Even to this day, I think that John is the pre-eminent model of a disciple. Jesus is certainly not a good model of discipleship; he is the one disciples follow. He is the Messiah, the savior. The Church holds Mary up as the model Christian, with good reason, but the thing that always brings me up short there is the Immaculate Conception, being born without sin. Lord knows I was not, although all of us share in being born without original sin in baptism. So I would always go back to John, who had no special treatment but still served so wonderfully as the disciple who got the ball rolling.
The most important characteristic of Johnís discipleship is his wonderful humility; he knew who he was and who he wasnít. He knew what all of us, but maybe most importantly those in ministry, find hard to remember: we are not the savior; we are just the heralds of the kingdom. We must decrease while Christ increases. The contrast between when we celebrate John and Jesusí birthdays highlights this. We celebrate Johnís today, a few days after the summer solstice, when the days start to shorten, to diminish. We celebrate Jesusí a few days after the winter solstice, when the days start to lengthen, the light starts to increase.
There is another aspect of Johnís discipleship I would like to reflect on with you today. I donít think it is a very common way of regarding John but it was suggested to me by an article by Edward Sellner in a Chicago Studies back in 1994 on a spirituality of the marginalized.
The marginalized refers to those who live on the fringes of whatever mainstream we are talking about. Our Judeo-Christian heritage has always had a special focus, a special tenderness, for the marginalized, the anawim. In the Hebrew Scriptures they are symbolized by the widow, the orphan, and the alien, those who had no rights under the law, and so needed protection and care.
In our Christian, and especially our Catholic, tradition this special focus continues in our social justice stance, with its preferential option for the poor, in our care for the sick through our health care systems, in our zeal to educate those who are not served by the public schools, and in our care for immigrants of every generation. As a matter of fact, until the middle of the last century, the American Catholic Church was entirely marginalized from mainstream Protestant America. These aspects of our special focus on the marginalized springs from our anointing as king in baptism.
But there is another aspect that springs from our call as prophets that makes the marginalized so important to our faith. If you look at our salvation history you will see that every important figure, every major advance in our understanding of Godís revelation, has come from the marginalized. From Abraham, an insignificant Bedouin nomad who moved in exile to Egypt and in fear in Caanan, to Moses who spent most of his life either in exile in his father-in-law Labanís land or for forty years in the desert, to Jesus. Jesus not only lived in an insignificant land on the edges of the Roman Empire, but even within that land he lived out in the boondocks. In our day we have such figures as Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King.
I believe the marginalization of these people helped them to avoid the distractions of power that can come with being mainstream. In Johnís case, being on the fringe added a powerful edge to his message, and allowed him to remember who he was and was not.
I realize that it might be hard to think of ourselves as marginalized, living here in the lap of luxury in Stow. But the marginality I would like you to reflect on is one we share with a majority of American Catholics: our marginality within our church. For most conversations I have, when someone says Church they are not talking about themselves but the institutional church as opposed to themselves. We certainly are geographically on the fringe of this diocese. Sure we had the Cardinal come out to dedicate the new altar, but more than once in the time surrounding that liturgy I heard remarks like, ďIíve never been here beforeĒ, or ďBoy it really is beautiful out here in the sticks.Ē †††
Many women feel alienated by the hierarchy who they see as failing to put their money where their mouths are in proclaiming the special gifts of women. Many younger people are alienated because they donít have the foundation to understand our liturgy, our efforts at bringing the kingdom to life in this world. And the majority of American Catholics lack a strong sense of connectedness to the universal church or even their local church, the Archdiocese of Boston in our case.
So I would ask you today and this week to open yourself to a spirituality of the marginalized that would use the tension of living on the edge to move past anger, despair, rejection, or most often, apathy. Instead, let the Spirit move us past those negative reactions to proclaim God's glory. Let the Spirit make us prophets in the line of John the Baptist, proclaiming boldy that the kingdom of God is near, that the Savior of the world has come.
Then maybe we will hear the same words God speaks to his servant in that first reading: I will make you a light to all the people so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth, starting right here in Stow.