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The Nativity of John the Baptist
June 24, 2018


    
Today, we leave for a moment the slow and stately progress of ordinary time for an extraordinary celebration, for a family feast, the feast of birth of John the Baptist, Jesus’ first cousin once removed. John was the son of Zechariah the priest, and Elizabeth, his aged mother who was a kinswoman to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Well beyond her child bearing years, Elizabeth conceived John, and that conception was a sign to Mary of the great works that God was working in her as well: for the angel Gabriel reminded them both, “nothing is impossible to God.” And when Mary hastened to Elizabeth’s side we are told that the infant in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy at the presence of his messiah, already quickened in Mary’s body. Even before his birth, Luke tells us, John experienced the presence of God in the one he would later recognize and profess as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
 
     Two cousins, john the elder by six months or so, Luke tells us. John’s name means “God is Gracious”’ and Jesus means “God saves”. A single destiny uniting them. Both were born in human flesh to be prophets, truth-tellers, whatever the cost. Their truth-telling cost each of them their lives.
 
     John was the last and greatest prophet of the old covenant, called from his earliest youth to proclaim a message of repentance, “to turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and to go before Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah* to turn the hearts of parents toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
 
     John, the wild man, is portrayed by artists as a desert preacher living on locusts and wild honey, clad in a camel skin. John thundered about our need to change our lives, to be cleansed and purified, baptized and made new. This same John, when he caught sight of his kinsman Jesus, recognized and professed who he was:  “Look, there is the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. I am not worthy to unfasten the strap of his sandal.” There beside the Jordan, John recognized Jesus as the prophet of the new and everlasting covenant, and as he reluctantly baptized Jesus, he heard the voice of God proclaim “this is my son, my beloved. Listen to him.”
 
     And what did John hear? He heard from Jesus a similar call to change of heart to the one he himself preached, but a call tempered through and through with mercy, not with judgment and wrath. He heard a final and definitive word of revelation about the nature and power and justice of God, a God who will judge us not according to minute adherence to statutes, but by how often we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, made the exile and immigrant at home, visited the imprisoned.
 
     From the mouth of Jesus, John heard a message of repentance, yes, but more: he heard a message of inclusion, of care, of tenderness that becomes a new criterion for justice: “whatever you did for these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me.”
How good, and how challenging it is, to hear these prophetic voices at this fraught and precipitous moment in our country’s history, when our nation and many of our leaders seem to have forgotten the fundamental law of humanity contained at the very heart of our own Jewish tradition: to care for the widow and the orphan, to welcome the exile, for our ancestors too were once exiles in Egypt, or in Philadelphia, or in Nogales. As an infant, Jesus himself was taken into a strange land by his terrified parents in order to save his life. Does that sound familiar? And there they lived as refugees, as strangers in a strange land, sustained by their own labor and by the generosity of their new neighbors.

     Now more than ever, we need to hear again the prophetic voices of John and Jesus, and now more than ever we need to find courage to speak prophetic and holy words of acceptance, not of rejection; words of welcome, not of exclusion; words of mercy, not of legal dogmatism. We need to hear, and if we are to be faithful to Jesus, we need to act, in spirit and in truth.
 
     We need to hear again, and take to heart again, John’s call to repentence, and to hear again and to take to heart again Jesus’s haunting reminder: “Whatever you did not do for one of these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did not do for me.”
 
     There is a lot of work to be done, my friends, a lot of work to be done.

Father Tom Lucas, SJ

 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303