June 24, 2012

HOMILY for the Solemnity of St John the Baptist

Isa 49:1-6; Ps 138; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66. 80

“Behold the Lamb of God!” Every time we come to Mass, we hear these words, and today we celebrate the birthday of the man who first said this. We celebrate him who points to Christ; the Voice who announces the Word; the one whom God had prepared from the womb to prepare God’s people for the Lord’s coming, leading them to behold Jesus, the Lamb of God. 

It’s often remarked that apart from the birthdays of Jesus and Mary, St John’s is the only other birthday we celebrate in the Liturgy. It’s so important that it even trumps a Sunday. Why? Perhaps the importance we give to St John emphasizes the importance of preparation. All good things require preparation, whether it is a meal, a birthday celebration, a sporting event, or a concert. And the more special and momentous it is, the more preparation it deserves. Otherwise the event may become a disappointment; stressful and lacklustre. Even more important than occasions are relationships. These also need preparation. Marriage, for example, comes at the culmination of years of friendship which prepares the way for committed love, union, and family life. 

So, when God desires to enter into a personal relationship, and indeed, a marital covenant with his people, he first prepares the way. Before the event and the relationship of the Incarnation takes place, God sends St John to prepare and make ready his people for the coming of Christ. 

This preparatory task of gathering Israel to the Lord, as the First Reading put it, is essentially the task of a priest. Which is what St John was. Born of parents who were both descended from Aaron, from the Old Testament line of priests, John was also a priest. Thus we find that John washes – i.e., baptizes – the Lamb of sacrifice, and he ministers around the Temple who is Jesus Christ. As a priest, John ministers to the people of God by preparing them for the Lord’s coming, so that they are ready to “behold him who takes away the sins of the world”. And he does this by “preach[ing] a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel”, as our Second Reading says. 

But if preparing for the Lord’s coming is so important, what’s become of St John’s ministry? The Catechism says that St John’s priesthood is a “prefiguring of the ordained ministry of the New Covenant” (CCC 1541). So, like John, the Catholic priest is called by God to prepare God’s people for his coming, and to bring people back to him. Like John, the priest also “preach[es] a baptism of repentance”. He prepares the holy water which we use to recall our baptism at the entrance of the church; he calls all to repentance through the sacrament of confession, or, for less serious sins, through the Penitential Rite of the Mass; and he preaches the Gospel. All this prepares our heart and mind for the Lord who comes to us in the Eucharist. Then, just as the Baptist pointed to Christ, so too, the priest at the Altar points to Christ, saying: “Behold the Lamb of God!”

These words are crucial because the priest, like St John, is always to point to Christ, and to announce the Word, not himself. As St John said: “He must increase, but I must decrease”. That is the essential duty of the ministerial priesthood: to bring others to Christ, to make Jesus known, and to prepare God’s people for the event and the relationship of Eucharistic Communion. So, the focus of the Liturgy is always the Lord and never the priest, such that we are all turned towards the Lord, ready to behold him.

In the Scriptures, and sometimes in art, there is a certain similarity between St John and Jesus, so that it seems that some people mistook John for Jesus. But it is vital that we don’t make this mistake in the Church. Some people have been very hurt by clergy, wounded by what priests have said and done. However, it would be tragic if the sins or rudeness of some priests should lead people to reject Christ, or become alienated from Christ’s holy Church altogether. For although the priest is the instrument used by Christ to mediate his Sacraments to his people, the priest is not identical with Christ. So, in the Confiteor, he confesses to God, and to you, his fellow Christians, that he is a sinner in need of mercy, forgiveness, and divine grace. He, too, needs daily conversion to Christ, and a deeper friendship with Jesus. Yet, the mystery of God’s goodness is that he calls such unworthy men (like myself) to be his servants, and he faithfully acts through us even when we are unfaithful. Each priest, then, becomes a sign of God’s graciousness to sinful Man. Perhaps all priests should also be called ‘John’, since the name means “God is gracious”. 

Nevertheless, the priest seems an important person in the Church since he has decision-making power, and leads the liturgical assembly. But, again, I think St John can help us put things in perspective. For although John was a prominent and esteemed figure in the Gospel, Jesus says that “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]” (Mt 11:11). Because St John was merely a preparation for the event and relationship of union with God in Love, i.e., for holiness. What this says to us, then, is that the greatest in God’s Church isn’t the pope or any priest. It is “the least in the kingdom”, the saint, who has the authority of love, who is greatest. So, the Second Vatican Council said: “It is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour which points out the true disciple of Christ” (Lumen Gentium, §42).

So, ultimately, true greatness in the Church is not marked by clerical status, or administrative power, or liturgical roles, nor the many other concerns of Church politics. These can distract us from the Church’s mission, and our common task, which is to be, as St John was, “a light to the nations, [so] that [God’s] salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. Hence, St Paul urges us to be “ambitious for the higher gifts”, above all, love. Because when it comes to what finally matters, what actually makes for greatness in God’s kingdom, each and every one of us, men or women, have equal opportunity. We have equal access to the grace of God and the sacraments that make us lovers of God and neighbour, transforming us into saints.

Therefore, as a priest, my deepest desire is to facilitate this, preaching a “baptism of repentance”, as St John did, to prepare us for the Lord’s Final Coming when, at last, we hope to behold God face to face. Thus, each day my prayer and hope is that you “may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should”. May the Lord grant this grace. Amen. 

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