Maybe it is just me but it seems the older I get the quicker the years slip by. Can you imagine that we are only 6 months away from Christmas! I know this because of the feast we celebrate today, the Nativity of John the Baptist, which is always celebrated 6 months before the birth of the Christ child.
He is an extraordinary figure and a person of contradictions. Consider that only three times during the year does the Church celebrate a birthday: for Jesus, for His mother and for John the Baptist. Down through the centuries he is well represented in art so much so that we do not need much of an imagination to picture him covered with the characteristic camel’s hide, the belt around his waist, nibbling on locusts and wild honey.
Yet, John the Baptist was never known as a miracle worker. Miracles are what makes saints but there is no tradition of miracles connected with John. If you were going to pray to a saint to intercede for you odds on John the Baptist would not be high on your list. So what makes him so special and why has his birthday displaced our normal Sunday mass?
I think the most obvious reason is simply the fact that Jesus identified him, singled him out, as a prophet. In Matthew’s gospel he is quite specific “When you went out to the desert, what did you expect to see? A reed swept by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? People who wear fine clothes live in palaces. What did you really go out to see? A prophet? Yes, indeed, and even more than a prophet. I tell you this: no one greater than John the Baptist has come forward from among the sons of women”.
But well before Jesus publically identified him as a prophet people were flocking to him wanting to hear what he had to say. I think the second reason why John is special is the honesty of his message. It takes a lot of courage to tell the truth and John was not afraid to tell everyone, from tax collectors to Roman soldiers, the truth. Not only did he tell the truth but he dared his hearers to live the truth!
Finally, while it is easy to see how John became a model for ascetic life his example is not confined to monasteries and cloisters. In our world of abundance where choice and excess often go hand in hand, John the Baptist challenges us to remember and separate what is important and eternal and what is fleeting and a distraction.
So let’s celebrate John’s birthday. God has a way of using the most unlikely characters to fulfil the most important missions. John knew he had an important role which he played aggressively, with confidence and honesty. Maybe, just maybe, this week it will be our turn to be that voice in the wilderness; challenging others by our honesty; inspiring others by our choices.
Fr Peter Brannelly