The history of the development of the Liturgical Calendar in the Catholic Faith is a complex and fascinating story of faith, symbol and logic. Today’s solemnity illustrates this perhaps better than most festivals or fasts of the cycle. St. John the Baptist is not and was never a “Christian” as such. Like St. Joseph, he died before Jesus’ death and resurrection that marked him as the Christos (the Greek word for Anointed One or Messiah in Hebrew). There is a strong Gospel witness that John intuited or surmised that Jesus was the promised one – at least he sent his disciples to Jesus while he himself was confined to prison to ask this very question – and the Church is confidant that if he did not discover the full meaning of that before he was beheaded he certainly did when he met the Risen Lord in Eternity.
The Gospel of Luke witnesses Jesus’ assertion that John is
the greatest of all the prophets (including Moses!) which is an
extravagant claim. But then Jesus goes on to state that the least
in the Kingdom of God – that is disciple of Jesus –
will be greater, that is, a greater or more powerful prophet of
God’s good news.
It seems fairly certain that at least one key reason for setting Jesus’ natal festivity at the time of the winter solstice was to indicate that he is the Lord of light in truth – and his incarnation occasions the ultimate “rising” of the light. Similarly, the establishment of John the Baptist’s Nativity celebration was established very early in the Church both in response to Luke’s account that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Mary visited her but even more based on the witness of John’s Gospel that John the Baptist insisted that “He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease” (John 3.30). The Feast then is set at the point of the waning of light as John symbolizes the decrease of the Prophetic witness to the Kingdom of God now that it is at hand.
Now having provided all this wonderful “liturgical trivia” what does the solemnity tell us about John’s role in our faith life? Clearly the texts celebrate the conviction that John was called from his conception to be a messenger of the Kingdom of God. Similarly, Jesus assigns all of us who are Baptized into His Spirit and into Discipleship of him, the role of Prophet – that is, one who announces in word and deed the Kingdom of Justice and Mercy that defines the Reign of God. From the moment of our Baptism (conception into God’s life) we, like John, have a task in the Father’s plan. We, like John, must brave the social, political and economic evils of our world that deny the goodness and mercy of God, and risk our heads for the truth of God’s Justice.
It is never comfortable or safe to stand up against the powers
of darkness and death to defy them with the confidence and hope
of the fulfillment of God’s Reign. Remember that John wasn’t
sure that Jesus was Messiah and did not have the
Witness of the Resurrection to give him greater surety, but he was
confident that the day of God’s vindication was at hand when
he carried on his ministry. He challenged all of Israel –
and even all the nations as today’s first reading asserts
– to repentance. He was faithful to his vocation even in the
face of persecution and death. For this John the Baptist was born,
say the texts from today’s liturgy, for this too
we have been baptized. Not to just meekly follow Jesus,
but to announce the day of salvation that we confidently hope, in
Jesus, will be fulfilled.
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