23 June 2018

Homily - The "long defeat" and "a glorious failure" - The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist - 24 June 2018

The Solemnity of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist

Dear brothers and sisters,

Birthdays are, for many people, significant occasions on which to gather with their family and friends. Particularly for the young, birthdays are especially festive moments to play games, eat cake and ice cream, and receive gifts. Parents go to great lengths to ensure their children have an enjoyable birthday as they recall with gratitude the day they first heard the voice of their son or daughter. Holy Mother Church, on the other hand, only rarely celebrates the birthdays of her children, at least as we normally think of them.

Obviously, we celebrate the Nativity – the birth - of Christ Jesus on December 25th, but he is the Church’s founder, not one of her children. The Church celebrates the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8th, but she is the image and model of the Church; indeed, she is the Mother of the Church, as the Holy Father Pope Francis recently reminded us. Today’s solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist is unique in the liturgical life of the Church; of all the saints, only birth is accorded the rank of a solemnity.

Saint Augustine of Hippo reminds us that “the Church observes the birth of John as in some way sacred; and you will not find any other of the great men of old whose birth we celebrate officially.”[1] Indeed, aside from the Lord Jesus and his Mother, the Church does not officially observe the birthdays of any other saint. This is not to say the Church does not celebrate the birthdays of her holy and faithful children. Take, for example, Saint Augustine. The Church celebrates his life on August 28th because it is the day of his death, his dies natale – his birthday, as the early Christians called it – into the glory of heaven. This is why Saint Augustine tells that today’s celebration of the birth of Saint John the Baptist “cannot be passed over in silence.”[2]

Recalling the full extent of Saint John’s life, one Scripture scholar has called him “a glorious failure,” a curious phrase to be sure, though not untrue.[3] After John was born, his mother’s “neighbors and relatives … rejoiced with her;” presumably his father’s relatives also rejoiced with him, but Luke does not give us this information (Luke 1:58). “Fear came upon all their neighbors” when Zechariah’s tongue was finally unleashed so he could bless God (Luke 1:65; cf. Luke 1:64). As the people considered the unusual – and miraculous – circumstances of John’s birth, they asked, “What, then, will this child be?” because they knew “the hand of the Lord was with him” (Luke 1:66).

Their wonder at the Baptist did not decrease with the passage of years. The crowds went out to see John from “all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem” (Mark 1:5). They went out to the river Jordan to hear his preaching, which consisted of two simple messages: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” and “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Luke 3:4 and John 3:30). A great many of the people heeded his preaching and “were baptized by him … confessing their sins” (Mark1:5). Yet others did not heed his preaching, like King Herod, who “was much perplexed” by John’s words, “yet he heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20).

Saint John taught them how to live a moral life and so to prepare themselves to welcome the Messiah, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (cf. Luke 3:10-14; John 1:29). They liked what he said, but they would not follow it. For those caught in the mire of sin, the truth is both confusing and pleasurable. Herod liked listening to John because he knew he spoke the truth, even if Herod would not yet bring himself to turn from his sinful ways. It is not all that different in our own day.

Even so, the glory of Saint John the Baptist is not to be found in the attraction of the crowds or of royalty. It is, rather, to be found in his unrelenting efforts in preparing the way for the Lord Jesus, even to the point of offending the ruling class of Judea because of his public and verbal witness to the truth and dignity of marriage.

As an authentic prophet, John bore witness to the truth without compromise. He denounced transgressions of God's commandments, even when it was the powerful who were responsible for them. Thus, when he accused Herod and Herodias of adultery, he paid with his life, sealing with martyrdom his service to Christ who is Truth in person.[4]

It is in the loss of his head that we see the glory of Saint John the Baptist and why we can say he is “a glorious failure.” In the eyes of this world, he failed because he did not convert the hearts of all who heard him; in the eyes of the Church, however, his life is glorious because he never shied away from leading them to Jesus, even at great cost to himself. John was not afraid to decrease so the glory of Jesus might be better known.

If Saint John the Baptist spoke out so clearly against adultery in defense of marriage, one can only guess what he would be crying out today along our rivers. He was not afraid to let his voice be used for testimony to the Truth, for testimony to Jesus Christ. For what do we use our voices?

If we are honest and set our politics aside and begin to look at each again his human beings made in the image and likeness of God, we will readily see a myriad of areas of our society that would lead Saint John to cry out, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10)! How many issues today – from adultery to false marriages to contraception to abortion to divorce to greed to inhospitality and fear of the stranger – to warn us of the Second Coming of the Messiah, crying out, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).

In the face of such atrocities, you and I, dear brothers and sisters, cannot remain silent; we, too, must place our voices at the service of the truth and in the service of the love of God and of neighbor.

Like John, if we speak about God’s truth boldly and continue to point toward Jesus, we are going to provoke opposition in this world from those who don’t want to hear it because it doesn’t suit their agenda. It may mean the loss of income, employment, possession and life. We’ve got to maintain an eternal perspective: God has a plan for each of us that began before our birth and extends beyond our death. The goal is not visible success in this life. It’s covenant fidelity (hesed) toward the one who is greater than us, whose sandals we are not worthy to tie, but nonetheless promises to “raise us up on the last day” (John 6:40).[5]

Can there be any doubt that our society is in great need of conversion? Who will be its heralds if not you and me?

In 1956, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a rather profound sentence: “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” he said, “so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but ‘a long defeat’ – though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory.”[6] In this, he echoes something he put on the lips of the Lady Galadriel: “… together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”[7]

The pages of history are filled with many examples of saints whose witness, courage, and love reshaped their societies. Yet its pages are also filled with many examples of saints whose witness, courage, and love did not reshape their societies, as seems to be the case in our day. Saint Augustine continued to call men and women to the truth even as the Roman Empire collapsed around him in the midst of glimpses of the final victory of Jesus Christ. Consequently, his life, too, might be said to have been a glorious defeat because his witness and wisdom continues to teach us today how to follow Christ faithfully and fully.

Like Saint John the Baptism, then, together with Saint Augustine and so many others, may we never be afraid to raise our voices in the face of seeming long defeat, but let us fight it together. Let us, rather, take comfort in the glimpses of Jesus’ victory he allows us to see and raise our voices loudly and clearly in the service of the truth and love. Let us take courage in the example of Saint John the Baptist and never fear our lives becoming glorious failures for Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 293.1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Bergsma, “Birth of a Glorious Failure: The Nativity of John the Baptist,” The Sacred Page: A Blog on the Bible and Catholic Theology by Michael Barber, John Bergsma, Brant Pitre, and John Kincaid, 21 June 2018. Available at http://www.thesacredpage.com/2018/06/birth-of-glorious-failure-nativity-of.html#more. Accessed 22 June 2018.
[4] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 24 June 2007.
[5] John Bergsma, “Birth of a Glorious Failure.”
[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Amy Ronald, 15 December 1956.
[7] Ibid., The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 348.

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