25 Jun 2012
Homily for the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist – June 24, 2012
June 24, 2012
By Father J. Daniel Atkins, Holy Family Catholic Church, New Albany, Indiana
Saint Augustine, in a sermon on this day, once said of John the Baptist:
John appears as the boundary between the two testaments, the old and the new. That he is a sort of boundary the Lord himself bears witness when Christ speaks of the Law and the teachings of the prophets up until John. Thus John represents times past and he is the herald of the new era to come. As the representative of the past, he is born of aged parents; as herald of the new, he is given a prophet’s commission while he is still in his mother’s womb. For when he is yet unborn, he leapt at the arrival of the Messiah in the virgin Mary’s womb as she came to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
John is indeed a boundary person. He stands at the end of a long line of prophets, possessed by the Spirit of God, but never possessing the Spirit as we do by virtue of our Baptism. John stands at the edge of the desert, preaching the need for repentance, but never experiencing in his lifetime the reconciliation of God with sinners at Christ’s table. John points from a distance and says, “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” We hold the Lamb of God in our hands, put him in our mouths, chew and swallow him as holy food. John is voice of one crying in the desert, “Make straight a highway for God.” You and I are bearers of the Word himself, holding the treasure, as it were, in earthen vessels.
How very much John was like Moses, leading God’s people to the Holy Land but not being able to cross over himself. John is indeed a boundary person and the feast of his birthday can teach us many things. For you and I are boundary people, too. We are the Church, and that makes us boundary people. We stand in the in-between-time. We are people of the already-but-not-yet. We are the seed that Christ planted, but we are not its full flower. We are the promise, but we are not the Kingdom. We are sign and symbol, a sacrament of unity for the human family, but that the unity which will only be known when Christ is all in all. Yes, like John we are border people. Standing between the holy past of the Incarnation and the holy future of the Second Coming, the Parousia.
But we have a greater calling that John, great prophet and martyr though he was, for as our Lord said, “Even the least-born in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist.” If we have a greater calling then we have a greater responsibility.
The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr says,
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. And no virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
So then we are brothers and sisters of the Baptist. We are boundary people because we are people of faith, hope, and love. We stand in this world, which is – in many places – filled with sighs of the discouraged, grumblings of the disenchanted, the weeping of the grieving and we say, “Look into your broken dreams, in the fragments of your plans, and in the empty place of your loss and you will see the Lamb of God who heals and hallows your failure, your discouragement, and your pain.” We say that even when we struggle to believe it ourselves.
We stand in this world – a place where many people struggle to do what is right even when it is hard – and we say to them, “Do not give up if you see no profit in living justly and mercifully. Keep your promises and speak the truth. Love chastely, and share your gifts. The owner of the vineyard will return and repay you.” We say that even when we struggle to believe it ourselves.
We are border people, spiritual cousins of John. Our faith, like his hairshirt, scratches and chafes sometimes. But we are confident and joyful and at peace in our calling. Let our prayer today be that of the Baptist: May we decrease so that Christ may increase in us.