Monday, June 23, 2014

Being Like John the Baptist

How many of us were asked, when we were young, what we wanted to be when we grew up? I’m sure that of all the answers we might have given—or that we might have heard, for that matter—“I want to be like John the Baptist” was not among them.

And yet, aren’t we called to be like John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate every June 24?

Who was this John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah?

In essence, John was simply a prophet. In fact, Jesus himself said that John was “more than a prophet,” going on to say, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11: 9-11). High praise, indeed.  

 Since the early days of the Christian Faith, John the Baptist has been revered as the one chosen by God to prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah, in much the same way that Mary was chosen to be the mother of Jesus. This is the reason why, other than the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the only birthdays celebrated in the Church’s calendar are those of Mary (on September 8) and John the Baptist. What made John “more than a prophet” was that he didn’t just preach a message of repentance and return to God (like those we honor as prophets of the Old Testament); he pointed to Christ who was present within and among humankind: “John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me… And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God'” (John 1:29-30, 34).
St. John the Baptist
by El Greco

Among the selections from Scripture assigned for this celebration of John’s birthday is a brief passage taken from the First Letter of Peter (proclaimed at the Vigil Mass for the Solemnity): “Concerning this salvation, prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and investigated it, investigating the time and circumstances that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when he testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the glories that followed them” (1:9-10). Like those who came before him, John “searched” and “investigated” what was going on in the world around him. This is what prophets do. Sadly, there are some who seem to think that prophets were some sort of fortune tellers and it’s this impression of prophets that leads so many people to take texts like the Books of Daniel and Ezekiel or the ever-popular Book of Revelation as a sort of promise of terrors to come. But, this interpretation of the prophet’s call misses the mark.

When I think about the recent Year of Faith, along with the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis, I find myself often thinking of Pope Saint John XXIII. Dismissed as an uncomplicated man who wouldn’t make waves following the long pontificate of Pius XII, John accepted the responsibility that was laid upon his shoulders by the cardinal-electors and donned the camel-hair prophet’s mantle, like the Saint whose name he chose. “Good Pope John” looked at the world around him and “searched and investigated,” realizing that there were new opportunities for the Church, new ways to engage the world that were ultimately enshrined in Council documents he would never see. But, I also believe that Pope John trusted the Church—the whole Church, with its individual members—to be prophets in the world. In fact, this was not only the vision of John XXIII, but of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, working together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever else we might feel we are called to (or simply want to do), being a prophet is our common vocation—each of us is called to be a “John the Baptist” in our own time. After all, what is a Christian if not the one who says “Look, Christ is here!” Remember: this isn’t the sole responsibility of the clergy. It is the right and responsibility of each one of us. Every member of the Church is called to look at the world around us and to recognize that we, too, are prophets.

To be honest, this burden unsettles me… at times, I find it frightening. But, the reality is that each of us has to take what is going on in the world around us, however uncomfortable it might make us or how much it might challenge us, and we have to be prophets who “search and investigate” and we must be willing to take a stand and proclaim that, even in the midst of the mess, Christ is present and at work. Does this mean that things might change and that our comfortable “ways of proceeding” might be challenged? Yes. But, if we are guided by faith and proceed along our way in a spirit of prayer and discernment, actively engaging the lived Tradition of the Church, we can trust that the way we move forward together will be guided by the Holy Spirit. And this new way will take us to places which we might never have imagined.

 In the end, all of this takes patience and discretion. Speaking to this, Henri Nouwen wrote: “Patience dispels clock time and reveals a new time, the time of salvation. It is not the time measured by the abstract, objective units of the clock, the watch, or the calendar, but rather the time lived from within and experienced as full time… All the great events of the Gospel occur in the fullness of time. A literal translation from the Greek shows this clearly: 'When the time for Elizabeth had become full she bore her son John' (Luke 1:57)… It is this full time, pregnant with new life, that can be found through the discipline of patience. As long as we are the slaves of the clock and the calendar, our time remains empty and nothing really happens. Thus, we miss the moment of grace and salvation. But when patience prevents us from running from the painful moments in the false hope of finding our treasure elsewhere, we can slowly begin to see that the fullness of time is already here and that salvation is already taking place.”

Like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Paul, John XXIII, and the great prophets of our own time, each of us is called to proclaim that the Spirit of Christ is present and working among us: “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).

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