Birth of John the Baptist.

Birth of John the Baptist

Today we are celebrating the birth of St. John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke tells us the angel Gabriel announced his birth to his father Zechariah and gave him the name John, which means “God is gracious.” (Luke 1:8-23) Even while still in his mother’s womb he recognized the presence of Jesus by leaping when Mary visited Elizabeth (Luke 1:41). It is the moment when John the Baptist was cleansed of original sin. The angel Gabriel had previously promised Zechariah that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even while in the womb (Luke 1:15), and this promise was fulfilled when he was cleansed of original sin when Mary visited his mother Elizabeth. “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn their hearts to toward their children and the disobedient to the understanding of righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

True to his call the Gospels present John as a wild desert preacher dressed in leather-belted camel skin and eating locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed the Kingdom of God and a coming judgment and challenged people to accept baptism as a sign of their repentance for their sins. He took up Isaiah’s cry, “A voice of the one crying in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”(Lk.3, 4-6)

His ministry resembled that of the prophets in that he disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. We see his disapproval when he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? Produce fruit in keeping with your repentance and do not presume to tell yourselves we have Abraham as our father.” (Luke 3:7-8) His message had positive response from various categories of people. Tax collectors asked him what they must do and he replied, “Exact no more than the appointed rate.” (Luke 3:13) Soldiers also repented, and his advice to them was “No intimidation! No Extortion! Be content with your pay!” (Luke 3:14) His message spread far and wide. Mark says all Jerusalem and Judea made their way to him and as they were baptized in the Jordan they confessed their sins (Mark 1:5).

John’s humility is remarkable in his declaration that his ministry was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:8) When Jesus came to John asking for baptism, John recognized Jesus at once and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”(John 1:29) These words have found their way into the prayer of Mass; when the priest holds up the Sacred Host as we prepare for Holy Communion. When Jesus began his public ministry an expectation had developed among the Jews that the prophet Elijah would return to earth once again to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah.  Jesus himself said that John was that Elijah type person they were expecting (Mark 9:13) and Jesus complimented John in the superlative saying, “among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28).  After Jesus’ baptism once again we see John turning the attention to Jesus as he declared, “He must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

John died a martyr’s death because, with the prophetic courage of his convictions, he criticized his immoral King, Herod Antipas, for that King’s double violation of the Mosaic Law: Herod had divorced his lawful wife and married his brother Philip’s wife Herodias, Herod’s own niece. This is a reminder to us that not everything that is allowed by law is morally right, e.g. divorce and abortion.  Herod had John arrested and put in prison. John stood up for the truth and unfortunately like many who stand up for the truth today he had to pay a price. John’s courage in upholding the dignity of marriage and condemning the adulterous relationship of Herod and Herodias was to result in his death by beheading in prison.

St. Thomas More had the courage to speak the truth and was ready to lay down his life for it. When no offspring resulted from the marriage of Henry VIII and his wife Katherine of Aragón, Henry divorced her and married Anne Boleyn so that there would be heirs to the throne. Parliament passed a law forcing clergy to acknowledge Henry as the supreme head of the Church. Shortly afterwards Thomas More resigned his post as Lord Chancellor. He was aware that just because something is lawful does not mean it is morally right. On April 14th 1534 he was summoned to Lambeth and asked to take the oath, which he refused and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.  He was beheaded on July 6th 1535. His final words were, “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

John’s courage in upholding the truth about marriage, and his subsequent beheading as a result, challenges us in a time when it is not popular to speak the truth or live by the truth. Both he and St. Thomas More remind us that just because certain behavior is enshrined in the law of the land does not mean that is morally right. John turning attention away from himself towards Jesus reminds us to do the same also in our lives. In each of us, we ourselves are to decrease and Jesus is to increase.

11th Sunday (B)

The Kingdom of Godfor Pharisees was attained by the exact observance of the Mosaic Law. The Zealots saw the Kingdom as a political state established by force of arms with God as supreme ruler. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God as God’s rule in human lives begun here on earth and completed in Heaven. The Kingdom Jesus speaks of is not the afterlife but an expression of how God wants the world to be and live. Jesus’ “Kingdom parables” in today’s Gospel point to the Kingdom as a Divine act rather than a human accomplishment. They call on man to be patient with the delay of the Kingdom in coming. They are called “Kingdom parables” because they announce, “the Kingdom of God is like . . .”

The parable of the growing seed(verses 26-29) tells about a farmer who scatters seed in his field. While he sleeps at night and is up and about during the day, all the while the seed sprouts and grows. The farmer does not know how it happens, but the growing seed yields ripe grain for harvest. In this parable, Jesus underlines the inevitable growth of the kingdom of God. The kingdom has already irrupted into the world in Jesus’ ministry. Just as the scattered seed leads mysteriously to harvest, the heavenly kingdom has an irresistible power to grow and reach its full destiny. The kingdom grows because of the God-driven principle that powers its growth and maturation.

The second parable (verses 30-34) is about the mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world. Planted in the ground, it grows and becomes the biggest of all plants. Birds come and make their nests in its shady branches. In this parable, Jesus contrasts the insignificant beginning of the extremely small seed and the enormous size of the full-grown bush. The image of a tiny mustard seed growing into the grandiose bush underlines the universal expanse of God’s kingdom that would encompass all nations, as well as Israel.

Mysterious but steady growth of the Kingdom of God: Jesus explains that the kingdom of God grows this way in human souls. The Kingdom of God is the growth of God’s rule in human hearts that occurs when man does the will of God and surrenders his life to God. The seed of Faith lies dormant within each of us. When we permit him to nurture it with tender loving care, it grows miraculously into gigantic proportions. The growth is slow and microscopic in the beginning. But this seed grows by using the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us through the word of God, the Mass, the Sacraments and prayer. Finally, God’s rule in the human heart transforms individuals and communities into God’s people doing His will in His kingdom.

In Isaiah 55: 11 God says, “So shall my Word be that goes forth out of my mouth and not return to me void.” That word void means empty or ineffective. Let’s use the word empty and unproductive. “And not return to me empty or unproductive, but it will accomplish that which I please and prosper into wherein I send it.”

Jesus sowed his seed in our hearts, and then off he went, like the farmer in the story, like all the farmers all over the world. Of course, he knew things would not be ideal. There were birds and the droughts, the weeds and insects. But there was also the power of the seed itself, maturing and growing in humanity, a divine power showing its force all the time. The reign of God will grow to its fullness, despite all obstacles. Those who accept Jesus as their God and Savior will accept his rule in all areas of their lives, with the help of the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.

God did not give His Word to us for it to be inactive in our lives. He gave His Word to us so that it could produce in us. What does it produces? It produces the Kingdom of God. Some people say we are just going to leave everything up to God. That’s not how God works. God has put it in our hands. The seed of the kingdom is growing in you and you are becoming a part of the growth of the kingdom. If not you must be asleep. It is not you who should be asleep. He has placed his seed in us and went away, knowing that one day we, you and me would find that seed growing in us through all the weeds, all the droughts and all the dangers. We would be like a tree that is planted by the water streams, yielding its fruits in season, its leaves never fading (Ps 1:3)

James, the epistle writer, wasn’t a farmer.  But he knew the power of a seed sown in fertile soil. “Those who are peacemakers,” he said, “will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of goodness” (James 3:18). The outcome is sure. All that  God requires of us is that we sow seeds of New Life, namely of faith, of justice, of compassion and love in order to make this world  a better place to live. Having done this, we must wait, because we cannot force the seed to become a shrub. We can only provide the right conditions for growth. But God in his own time will definitely see to it that selfishness surrenders to sharing, evil gives way to goodness and hate yields to love. If we have patience and hope, eventually the harvest of what we have planted will make its appearance: nations will be reconciled, human rights restored, the vulnerable innocents will be protected, the unwanted are cared for and the hungry given food. We may not see these results in our own lifetime, but the next generations will.

10th Sunday (B)

The well-loved carpenter turned crazy preacher:Jesus constantly reminded us that sin and evil must be confronted at the root whether it is in ourselves, others or in our enemies.   The first part of today’s Gospel tells us how Jesus’ relatives and fellow-villagers wrongly judged him as out of his mind and consequently tried to take him by force back to Nazareth to do his safe and secure job as a good carpenter. That is why Jesus remarked, “A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:36). There were four reasons why Jesus’ people thought he was mad and attempted to dissuade him from his preaching and healing mission. First, Jesus had abandoned his safe and secure job as a much-needed village carpenter with steady income to become a wandering preacher with no residence or steady income. Second, Jesus had chosen a band of fishermen with no political or social influence, a hated tax collector and a fanatic zealot as his disciples. Third, Jesus had begun to criticize the power lobby – the scribes and Pharisees – in the Jewish religious headquarters, Jerusalem, labeling them hypocrites. Jesus’ relatives might really have been afraid that Jesus would be arrested, and they would be persecuted with him for criticizing those in power.  Fourth, Jesus had silently claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah and had worked miracles to support his claim.

The Sanhedrin slander refuted: The second part of today’s Gospel passage gives Jesus’ crushing reply to the slander propagated by the observers sent from the Sanhedrin, that Jesus expelled devils using the assistance of the leader of devils. Jesus refutes the false allegation raised against him by the Sanhedrin scribes with three counter-arguments and a warning:

1) A house divided against itself will perish, and a country engaged in civil war will be ruined. Hence, Satan will not fight against Satan by helping Jesus to expel his coworkers. 2) If Jesus is collaborating with Satan to exorcise minor demons, then the Jewish exorcists are doing the same.  3) Jesus claims that he is using the power of his Heavenly Father to evict devils just as a strong man guards a house and its possessions from the thief.  4) Finally, Jesus gives a crushing blow to his accusers, warning them that by telling blatant lies they are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit and, hence, their sins are unforgivable.

That battle and interior conflict has been around since Adam and Eve separated themselves from God and hid amongst the trees of the garden. It is seen in Israel wanting a king so it can be like all the other nations; forgetting that it has a unique calling, that it is to be different from other nations, that it is through Israel, the people of God, that God will act for the benefit of all people. This division and inner conflict is a reality of today’s world and our lives. A marriage divided is a divorce. A nation divided results in vitriolic politics and in the extreme, civil war. An economy divided yields poverty and injustice. A community divided becomes individualism and tribalism, prejudice and violence. Humanity divided is all these things on a global level. Faith divided is sin.

Jesus always stands before us as the image of unity, wholeness, integration. He is the stronger one. He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He puts our lives and houses back in order. Jesus offers a different image of what life might look like. He does so by revealing the division in our lives, the houses that cannot stand, and the crumbling of our kingdoms. There are all sorts of forces, things, events, sometimes even people by which our lives are broken and through which we are separated from God, others, and our self. Christ is stronger than anything that fragments our lives. He binds the forces that divide, heals the wounds that separate, and refashions pieces into a new whole. There is nothing about your life or my life that cannot be put back together by the love God in Christ.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?”  As Jesus became a strong critic of the Jewish religious authorities, his mother and cousins came to take him to Nazareth by force, perhaps because they feared that Jesus would be arrested and put to death.   Today’s Gospel episode seems to suggest that Jesus ignored the request of his mother and close relatives who had traveled a long distance to talk to him. But everyone in the audience knew that Jesus loved his mother and had taken care of her for thirty years. Besides, Jesus’ plain answer, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” was actually a compliment to his mother who had always listened to the word of God and obeyed it. Jesus was declaring, “Blessed are those who hear and keep the word of God as she is faithfully doing” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 58).   Jesus was also using the occasion to teach the congregation a new lesson about their relationship with God. Being a disciple of Jesus, or a Christian, is first and foremost a relationship – a relationship of love and unity with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with all who belong to God as His children.  Jesus has changed the order of relationships and shows us here that true kinship is not just a matter of flesh and blood.  God’s gracious gift to us is His adoption of us as His sons and daughters.  This gift enables us to recognize all those who belong to Christ as our brothers and sisters.  Our adoption as sons and daughters of God transforms all our relationships and requires a new order of loyalty to God and His kingdom.  “Everyone who does the will of the Father, that is to say, who obeys Him, is a brother or sister of Christ, because he is like Him who fulfilled the will of His Father.  But he who not only obeys but converts others, begets Christ in them, and thus becomes like the Mother of Christ”