Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist Lk 1,57-66.80
The greatest among those born of woman
Today we celebrate the solemnity of the birth of St. John the Baptist. This forerunner of the Lord is the only person, after the Virgin Mary, whose birth is celebrated by the Church in her liturgy. Perhaps because the faith of those two was put to the most significant test. Mary was to give birth to her only-begotten Son, the God-man Jesus Christ; John the Baptist was to baptize and announce Him. Both faithfully fulfilled their mission and then humbly receded into the background.
No religious figure influenced his time as John the Baptist did. The Lord Jesus Himself confirms this to us, for He calls John the greatest among those born of women. In the person of St. John the Baptist, the first order of salvation – the Old Testament – comes to a close and culminates. And at the same time, John is the first witness, the signpost of the new order of salvation – the New Testament.
The Eastern Church venerates Jesus’ predecessor John the Baptist, and the Mother of Jesus – the Most Holy Theotokos Mary, as the greatest of men. Their faith was put to the most significant test, and they showed the most profound humility. That those trials were burdensome to the edge of human endurance is evidenced by John the Baptist’s anguish in prison: “Are you the one who is to come? Are you the Messiah? Are you the Messiah if you leave me – your preacher – to rot in prison? “Just as Mary’s motherhood remains a mystery, so too does the fate of the Lord’s forerunner, St. John the Baptist, remain mysterious.
Someone wise called John the forerunner of our uncertainty. How are we to understand this? Let us realize that we, too, are still tempted by John’s doubts: if you, Lord Jesus, are indeed the Messiah, if our world is already redeemed, why is it not visible in the world? Why don’t you finally put an end to the scoundrels, the Bolsheviks, and the latter-day Pharisees? Those wicked husks of men do not fly in your mind; not only do they not burn in your fire, but they often seem to do better than we – your faithful ones!
We, too, are still tempted by John’s religious radicalism. We, too, are still tempted by the desire for a God who hurls lightning bolts at our enemies, the wicked. But to the mind of God, this idea of ours is very far from our minds. Christ the Lord did not come to present His heavenly Father as the destroyer of all sinners but as a merciful and loving Father.
On today’s Solemnity of St. John the Baptist, we are aware of one more remarkable fact. John the Baptist is certainly not one of those fawning and tender figures of saints, surrounded by roses and lilies, as the nineteenth century revealed in them, and some revel in them today. Everything about this man is rough and boyish. His speech is lapidary and austere; his demands are radical. He understands he has been sent from God and is a prophet of God. He is aware that he is to fulfill the role of a herald-a herald of the coming Redeemer.
Let us remember how significant the difference is between the end and the beginning of John’s life. How wonderful, how auspicious was the time of his birth. How astonished, they all said to each other: What will become of this child? For the Lord’s hand is with him! How the boy grows, and his spirit grows strong! Very eloquent is also his name, “Jochanan,” which in Hebrew means “God is gracious.” “God is gracious.” However, at times in his life, it must have been difficult for John to believe in the goodness of God. Like us today, he was surrounded by so much wickedness, so many wicked people. Like us, he had to learn again and again to trust in God’s goodness when he encountered a good person – Christ the Lord.
And what is the highlight of the life of St. John the Baptist? It is in the knowledge that he – Jesus – must grow, I must diminish, fade away. John the Baptist did not keep his disciples either. He sent them all to the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God. Until his death, he persevered in preaching repentance, reformation, and conversion. This repentance of John was easy then, and it is not easy today. It is not just a matter of changing outward habits. It is a change of mindset and, on that basis, a reformation of the whole of life. John the Baptist preached this repentant reformation of mind all his life – and experienced it again painfully himself at the end of his life in prison when he had to accept the Messiah as he was – and, in so doing, had to abandon his idea of himself.
A wise and experienced priest once told me the following story: ‘When I was a boy, our annual birthday celebrations included measuring the height of the birthday boy at the door. With the whole family present, my mother estimated how much the birthday boy had grown since his last birthday. And Mom always knew to add words about other, more critical growth. About growth spiritually, about growth toward better behavior. I wish they all had such a wise mother! “- The priest ended his story.
And this is the heart of the conversion that St. John the Baptist proclaimed. It is about always reforming one’s life; it is about inner, personal growth – always for the better. Conversion does not mean a reversal, a blip, a once and for all. So it is perhaps only a decision to correct. Making that decision, giving up all kinds of bad habits, and acclimatizing virtues to good habits take a long time! It takes practically a lifetime. This is the continuous realization of John’s life program: Jesus must grow in me, and I must decrease and continually wipe out my pride and selfishness.
The Lord Jesus is still coming to us. The Lord Jesus is still announced, but many times still unknown. He is still hidden in the word of the Gospel, in a tiny gesture of love, in the sign of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. We still have time to learn to live in love. We still have time to overcome our insecurities and doubts with Saint John the Baptist. We still have time to learn to trust fully in the Lord Jesus so that one day He can usher us into eternal life where there will be no more weeping, and we will rejoice with St. John the Baptist forever and ever.
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