Tomorrow, on June 24th, the Catholic Church honours the nativity of Saint John the Baptist. He is the patron saint of builders, tailors, printers, baptism, conversion to faith, people dealing with storms and their effects (such as hail), and people who need healing from spasms or seizures. He is the patron saint of a variety of places, such as Puerto Rico, Jordan, Quebec, Newfoundland, Charleston in South Carolina, Cornwall in England, and various cities in Italy. I got that from thoughtco.com because so far I can’t find an authoritative list.
The readings for this special day, which will be heard throughout the entire world, in so many languages, fit together in such a way that they can be understood as pointing to John and his mission.
The Gospel reading is about the time right after his birth. It’s good to think about St. John the Baptist as a baby. We tend to remember him as the guy from the desert who eats locusts and wild honey and who looks and sounds fairly wild. We remember him baptizing Jesus and maybe we remember that he was imprisoned and killed.
This Gospel reading (Luke 1:57-66, 80) brings us to the time when he was newly born. The topic in the room, on the day of his circumcision, was his name. A name, when inspired, signifies both mission and identity.
And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechari’ah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.”
There is so much to consider, even in this short segment from the Gospel reading.
Notice the simple bravery of the parents — St. Elizabeth and St. Zechariah. With their words, they go against the grain, confounding expectations. They do not allow their son to be given the name that everyone expects he will be given. Where do they get this strength? How is it that they act in this confident way, not taking their cues from those around them?
You can say that Zechariah knows what to do because Angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple more than nine months previous, which is true, but that alone does not explain everything. He does not gain strength just because something spiritually significant happened to him. It doesn’t work that way. The average life is chock full of wonderful little coincidences, answers, signs, messages and meaning, which can be accepted (and pondered and treasured) or rejected (and reframed and forgotten). Even an angel appearing before your eyes can be believed or doubted, because believing is a choice. And as a matter of fact, Zechariah did not believe the words of Angel Gabriel when they were spoken to him, despite the supernatural circumstances. For this reason, Zechariah received a ‘souvenir’ of his encounter with the angel: his disbelief cost him his voice. Do not think that God was being cruel. The muteness that Zechariah experienced served as a constant reminder to him and everyone around him that something very significant had happened. The experience of sudden muteness confirmed that he didn’t just imagine an angel in the temple. So during the period from the angel’s announcement up until the day of his son’s circumcision, he was quietly learning that God fulfills his promises. He amended his views of God; he had previously made God smaller than he should have, doubting that God could give them a child at this late stage of life, and doubting that God cared for him as much as God did. So now Zechariah accepted the truth of what God would do for him. Now Zechariah drew strength in knowing how strong God was, and in knowing that God would be willing to do good things for him and his wife. Look at the words from the psalm — now Zechariah could say, “I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength.” So this is where both Zechariah and Elizabeth drew their strength to walk a different path. They knew that this is what God had called their family to be. Their family was specially chosen, and the proper response to God’s gift, invitation and benevolence was to follow what God wanted, not what others wanted or expected. The choice they made, to insist on the name “John,” was very significant, because it was a testimony of their choice to adhere to the will of God. It was, in fact, a test, and they passed with flying colours. Zechariah was given back his voice, and the passage following this one is known as the canticle of Zechariah. Zechariah was a man of good will, but God wanted him to grow in his faith and trust. Now Zechariah could say, as in the words of the psalm, “I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works!” And indeed, the proper response for everyone who learns of these events is to wonder and marvel at the ways of God. His ways are surprising, generous and wise, and we are supposed to be impressed; we are supposed to have a reaction of respect and awe. Here are the lines in the Gospel describing the reaction of the people: “And they all marveled . . . And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?'” Too often our attitude towards God is characterized by indifference and boredom; we treat him like a television show we’ve seen before. We figure that we know who he is and what he can do and — more importantly — what he can’t (#scienceisking). We act as though we know what he will and won’t do with our lives and the lives of those around us. We yawn. We don’t marvel. We don’t treasure or ‘store up in our hearts’ our memories of special coincidences, signs, and answered prayers. We were so grateful at the time, but now we let what was amazing slip out of our consciousness, and we act as if God isn’t looking out for us.
The next aspect of the readings is precisely about God looking out for us. The readings speak about his care for the infant in the womb. Understand that these readings are not only about Isaiah and John the Baptist. Look at all of these lines about the unborn baby. The first reading (Isaiah 49:1-6) says, “The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.” The psalm says, “For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.” An unborn baby is different from a born baby in its quality of hiddenness. The born baby can show you how cute he is, how helpless and in need of your care. The born baby can impress you by opening his clear eyes for a moment and meeting your gaze. You can look at his fine hair and little toes. He can cry. The unborn baby, by contrast, is hidden. She doesn’t have the help of her cuteness to encourage everyone to admire her and want to care for her and protect her. She is silent and can be easily forgotten or dismissed in the way that a newly-born baby cannot. But we were all once like that; we were all once unborn, and God speaks to us about who we were then. Long before anyone knew us, God knew us. What does that say about God? What does that say about us? It says a lot. It reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and it reminds us that it was part of God’s design that we should exist. He wanted us to exist, even if nobody else did. Each person is part of the divine plan, and we are brought into being because we are part of that plan. Moreover, he has in mind for us more than our existence; he has in mind for us a wealth of good — an eternity of good — which will come about as we fulfill our mission. The idea of mission is contained in the idea of naming. “He named my name,” from the first reading signifies that he knows our identity and what we will be called to say and do.
In the case of John the Baptist, there are several events that are recorded in the Gospel. We hear of him first when an angel appears to his father. The angel tells Zechariah that he is to name his son, who is as yet unconceived, “John.” We hear of St. John next when he is in the womb. Upon hearing the voice of Mary, who carries within her the unborn baby Jesus, he leaps for joy in the womb of his own mother. However, it is not long afterwards in the narrative that we read that he is living as an adult in the desert. How long has he been there? The Gospel does not tell us, but it is safe to say that nobody would have predicted that the little baby named John would grow up and wear camel skins in the desert. With the early signs surrounding his birth, perhaps people expected that he was to become a great priest, or perhaps that he was the long-awaited Messiah himself.
Another story of John’s life has to do with his willingness to challenge the King. King Herod wanted his brother’s wife for himself, and he arranged things so that he could marry her, contrary to Jewish law. John spoke up against this illegitimate marriage even though it could be fatal to speak up against the king. This was bravery. The term bravery is applied broadly nowadays, and sometimes incorrectly. I heard of a pilot being praised for bravery by landing a plane that was damaged, but what should be praised in that case is skill, not bravery. Bravery is best defined as going from a place of safety to a place of danger, for a good reason. A pilot flying a damaged plane is already in danger, and his efforts are applied to get himself out of danger. I’m not criticizing the pilot; I’m just saying it’s not exactly ‘bravery.’
Bravery is correctly applied to anyone who speaks out against corruption or immorality, when speaking out is viewed as wrong or even untimely. Speaking up has its risks, and John knew that. But part of John’s life’s mission, in addition to preparing whomever wished to be prepared through baptism, was to denounce evil intentions when he came across them. The attitude of the Pharisees and Sadducees was wrong; they had an attitude of entitlement and superiority. Instead of making a whole-hearted effort to be repentant, they rested on their genealogical and spiritual connections to Abraham and other holy men. They came for baptism out of curiosity and out of a sense that they deserved to receive anything good that the masses were getting. They played a role in society that was all pretence, and John knew it. John said, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7) What do you think would be the risk to John of speaking in this fashion to the religious elites? What happened to Jesus when he spoke in the same way? In the past things were as they are now: those who are accustomed to receiving respect for their wisdom and holiness become absolutely livid and filled with rage when anyone questions their motives or behaviour. They view themselves as above reproach, and are scandalized when anyone challenges them.
Yet speaking out and speaking up, whether it is viewed as ‘wrong’ or ‘rude’ or even badly-timed, is so often exactly what is necessary, and it is what everyone is called to do, at least once in a while. If you don’t speak up, then a particular evil may claim more victims. If you don’t speak out, more innocent people may be hurt. And if you don’t speak out, those who are doing what is wrong may not change. It is so good that movements have arisen where women feel safe to speak about abuse they have suffered. It is for the best, not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators to face what has happened. It is good for the public to get used to the notion that someone might be popular yet evil, or funny yet evil, handsome yet evil, and rich or poor or young or old, yet evil. Let what has been done in the dark come to light. Any contract that aims to buy silence is immoral, insofar as it prevents people from saying what is true. I was disgusted with Michael Cohen, lawyer for President Trump, when he gleefully announced that he had paid a woman for her silence. He was really pleased with himself because he did it without his client’s knowledge and used his own money. Like many people who have dulled their conscience, Cohen seemed to believe that the rules of the legal system are the only ones that matter. In a similar vein, I have heard people say that the only acceptable method for accusing someone of a crime is to use the legal system. How impractical! The legal system is not equipped to address many important types of wrongdoing and harm, and the legal system is often compromised. I say that if the words are true, then let the victim choose his or her forum. Do not place arbitrary restrictions on how and when someone can reveal what happened to them.
As the life of John proceeded, he experienced new and unusual things. He taught and he had disciples. Crowds came to see him, and one day, Jesus came too. John spoke with Jesus and baptized him. Who, in all of humanity, has had that honour? John did not know everything, but God allowed John to understand that Jesus was the Messiah.
In the end, John was killed. The daughter of King Herod’s wife danced for him, and King Herod rashly announced, in front of all his guests, that he would give her, Salome, whatever she asked. This is a promise that is invalid, but even if I had been there to tell Herod that he didn’t have to keep his ‘promise,’ he wouldn’t have cared. What he cared about was his reputation, and so when Salome asked for (on the advice of her evil mother, Herodias) the head of St. John the Baptist, cowardly King Herod went ahead and ordered the execution of the holy man, and his head was given as a gift to this girl who should not have followed the suggestion or direction of her mother in this case. King Herod was not brave enough to say the words that he should have said, something to the effect that “I spoke wrongly; I cannot give you absolutely anything you desire; I will not behead an innocent man.” He chose not to say the words, just because it would have felt Awkward; it would have been Embarrassing, and not quite as grand and generous as he wanted to seem. He didn’t have the nerve. So in the end, everyone did what was wrong. They — Herodias, Salome and King Herod (and, for that matter, was there nobody in the room able to exercise any influence to stop this idea from being carried out?) — could have chosen otherwise, but they didn’t, and St. John the Baptist’s life was cut short. The baby whose name had been foretold was sacrificed.
In honour of St. John the Baptist, let us practice bravery in speech. Say what everyone knows but doesn’t dare say. Stand up for what is right with just a simple word or phrase. Say “no,” if that’s what needs to be said. Say “no” as St. Elizabeth did when “they” wanted to give her child a name that was different from what had been foretold. Say “no” as St. Zechariah did when “they” wanted what they wanted, despite St. Elizabeth’s response. Say “no” to those who want to present a façade of righteousness or compassion while trying to silence those who know of their dark hearts and dark deeds. It’s a fact that it is better for your misdeeds to be known now than later. Now there’s still time to repent. Now there’s still time to say sorry. Now there’s still time to make things better.
Everyone is called to speak up sometimes. This is not just for those who are famous, or who see themselves as activists. This is not reserved for those with a special calling, and this is not reserved for the times when there is a popular campaign dedicated to speaking up and naming names. When you make a decision, as a person, to be authentic — when you make a decision to be completely truthful in your words — then you will soon find that you do not need to look for opportunities to speak. The opportunities will find you. By this I mean that God will arrange things so that your unique voice will need to be heard. Perhaps someone will ask you that honest question, and you will feel they deserve to know the truth. Or maybe nobody will ask the honest question, but the truth will still need to be heard. The important thing is to be decided, independent of social fashions, that you will follow your conscience and God’s expressed will to you. He’ll take it from there, giving you a variety of circumstances and situations where you will feel called to speak out. St. John the Baptist didn’t purposely try to learn about the details of King Herod’s immoral life, but he learned about them, and he spoke up.
Nobody wants to be chastised, and usually people don’t want to be the ones to chastise another, especially those who are enjoying power or popularity or both, such as a Bill Cosby or a Harvey Weinstein. My point is that you do not have to live an extraordinary life to be called in the same way that St. John the Baptist was called, because we are all called to be faithful to the truth.
I really like the first reading.
Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”