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.