Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist
Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Isaiah 49:1-6 | Acts 13:22-26 | Luke 1:57-66, 80
Oh God, who raised up St. John the Baptist to make ready a nation fit for Christ the Lord, give your people, we pray, the grace of spiritual joy, and direct the hearts of all the faithful into the way of salvation and peace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
IT’S unusual to have a feast like this during the ordinary time of the year, but when a major celebration falls close to Sunday, it often overrides the ordinary Sunday that is planned. And so the focus of this particular Sunday is not so much on the person of Jesus but the person of John the Baptist. Rather than make it all about John, it is really about the role of a prophet. Prophets have been part of the story of God working with his people from almost the very beginning. One of the interesting things about the role of a prophet is they are primarily there to be an instrument of telling people what they couldn’t find directly from God. It came through someone else. A prophet had to speak the truth to them. It is like the truth that was buried inside of them was somewhat hidden. If you want an interesting image of redemption — it is a breaking open of the core of who we are, the truth that we all know, and giving us access to it. If we have access to that then we don’t really need the prophet as much as we did before, but what we do need is to understand the role of the prophet, because we are then called to be prophets. Anyone that lives in the truth becomes a prophet. More than their words, as Francis always said, you preach the truth all the time and only when necessary use words. There is something about a person living in the truth that challenges those who are living in a lie.
I would say that one of the things I have found the hardest to do in my work as a priest is to be the prophet. That is because what the prophet really does not so much tell the truth of what and who God is. When I preach a gospel or when I preach on the radio to you, what I’m doing is I’m trying to help you see the things that are hidden in these stories. So I’m explaining, or opening your imagination to a way of reading a story, and hopefully what you are reading is the truth. If the truth is all that I believe it is, then it has an amazing power. It is a frightening power in a way. Listen to the image of the first reading we just listened to. It’s the power of the truth being like a sword that cuts, separates bone from muscle. It’s a piercing cut that is the opening of the heart. The heart is the essence of who we are and that is an image of the truth. When the truth is proclaimed clearly to someone, they feel it penetrating into their heart, and so it is to be cut open. You know how, when you hear a truth and you’re not ready for it, you close it off? You just go, “No, no, no. I can’t hear that,” or, “That’s not right,” or, “Where does he get that? No, that doesn’t sound right.” Usually if you hear the truth and you’re living a lie, the truth doesn’t sound right. But if a prophet is powerful and he can cut open and get the image of the truth into your heart, it has a quality that’s like an arrow that pierces it. That’s why the prophet in that passage said, “I have a sword. I’m like a sword. I’m like an arrow.” An arrow has many meanings, but one of the things I like is that you often see someone with their heart stabbed. It’s always an image of pain. Let’s just say the voice of the prophet, when he speaks the truth, if he can cut through the resistance, often it hurts. It is painful. The realization that you have been living a lie is one of the most difficult things, because you see not only your frailty, but also see yourself as someone you never thought you were. If you are like me and grew up in a world of conditional love and you are not this wonderful person you present to people, then you will not be loved. You will not be loved. If there’s anything that is clear to me in the scriptures now, is that one of the things that is absolutely essential for any human being to do the work that God calls us to do is that we have a strong, inner love, conviction of our own goodness and our own beauty, the dignity of who we are, who God made us.
Listen to that first reading. It also talked about this prophet as being called by God to do this work, a very interesting image in the vigil mass for the birth of St. John the Baptist. It says, “Before you were born, before you were in the womb, I knew you.” Now, there is no way to prove that, but scripture is saying that. Now, there are other scriptures that say something that contradicts it. I love that. It just means it’s going to be a mystery that you can’t simply understand. Take it not so much as a literal thing that happened, but as a way of understanding that this relationship that you had with God, this person that you are that he created, it’s not just the result of your parents’ strengths and weaknesses. Why is it brothers and sisters are so radically different? They have the same parents. What do we come into the world with? We could say, “Well, it’s the stuff of our ancestors.” Well, maybe. Yeah, that could make sense, but whatever it is, it’s the task that we have to work on in order to be the person God is calling us to. If it was absolutely effortless, then I don't know what we would be here for. Think of life as that challenge of you being given a beautiful thing called your existence, which is eternal. Your task is to believe in it, to understand it, to get to know it, to embrace it. The only way you can embrace it for what it truly is, is to examine it in light of the truth.
So in that description of a prophet, it’s not enough for him to cut open someone. It’s not enough for him to cause pain in someone. At the end of that reading, God says, “No, I’ll make you a light. I’ll give you the ability to break through people’s resistance to what is, and then I’ll give you a way of helping with the pain of it. But you have to realize you’re the one causing the pain,” which is really hard for us if we live in a conditional world of love, because we think it means that we’re not going to be loved. Then he says, “I, God, will give you or give that person enlightenment.” And once you’re enlightened, there is no reverse gear. There’s no reverse gear. You see — you see who you are, and if you can go through the pain of accepting the fact that you were phony, you were a liar, you were selfish, when you thought you were being so wonderful, that is really great. However, let me go back to this other image about conditional love, because if you really do believe, like I believed all my life, that the only thing that would sustain my self-image was being approved by other people. I was trained in that. In my religious training, I was told that God is a conditional lover. If you do what you are told, he loves you. If you don’t, he throws you into hell and burns you forever. It wasn’t that he didn’t like you. He’s furious at you. He wants to do violence to you. So of course I wanted to please God, because if I didn’t then I would die. If I transfer that over to human beings, which I did because my parents were typical parents in the ‘40s, and good little boys were loved and bad little boys were punished. I could see clearly in my small mind, as I was being formed in this way of thinking that has taken me my entire life to work through and get free of, I was told that the only way you can find self-worth is to perform. Now that is part of my personality, and maybe other people don’t respond to conditional love exactly the same way, but that’s what I did. So I’m thinking, “All right, how can I be the person that cuts people open and stabs their heart and still expect them to love me?” Well, the only way I think I can do that is to have such a strong sense of my own value and my own dignity that I have convinced myself of, or God has shown it to me, and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not someone approves of me. In fact, I learned in a place called The Meadows that the reaction people have to you is more about them and their history than anything you’re saying or doing. So why is it that I would work so hard to please people in order to feel good about myself? It was the great block. It kept me from saying the hard things, maybe even preaching the hard things, though I think my desire to speak the truth has overcome that. But when it comes to personal relationships, it’s really hard for me to confront someone. And most of that is because I think they might be a conditional lover, and the shame is when you are trained in that conditional love, then you have to please people, which means that people have to please you too. So this idea of taking each other through painful situations is almost impossible if you’re really trapped in that.
So what we have in John the Baptist is a person who comes and says, “Look, I am here to do this work. I am going to proclaim the truth.” But what is so interesting about him is he said, “I am not the one doing this work. I’m not. I’m simply a messenger. The breaking down of a person and the pain in them and the healing in them is not my job.” But that’s what I think I thought. I thought, “Well, if I hurt somebody, then I have to fix them. I have to build them back up.” It’s interesting. A prophet’s role is to speak the truth. A person’s role is to embrace the pain that that demands of them, and God is the one that heals them and brings them to peace.
It’s interesting that we have prophets, priests, people speaking the truth, but there’s also another group of people that are planned by God to be this. They are angels, and I’ve only recently discovered the reality of angels all around me and speaking to me and helping me. They are the interesting prophets because they’re speaking the truth in ways that are so subtle, because they’re spiritual beings. They are talking directly to our spirit, and they’re so helpful. So be sure and use them. Call upon them when you need to face something in yourself that you can’t look at. You are going to invite someone else to look at it. Get them to be right there. Remember when Jesus in the garden had to go through the most painful realization that he had to go through the death that God was asking him to go through, and as soon as he did it, angels just came and ministered to him. When you say yes to the truth, you need to be ministered to. So as you examine carefully your resistance to the truth, as you realize that you need to say yes to people who are giving it to you without thinking they don’t love you — all of those things are proper steps. Bu the most important is to believe that this is the work we are here for. This is why we are on this planet, to find the truth, to call each other, the people we love, into the truth. Then to allow angels to minister and care for them and do the healing work of bringing them to peace.
Father, your message, your angelic voice calls us over and over to fulfill the role of the prophet, to both receive the truth and to call one another to that truth. Bless us with the courage and the understanding of the value of this work. Get us past all those things that frighten us and keep us from being who you call us to be, and we ask this in Jesus’ name.