The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
It’s midsummer which means, for us in Scotland, long days and beautiful drawn-out evenings, often accompanied by a spectacular celestial display as the sun sets. Last night, St John’s eve, was one such evening. However, as the longest day has come and gone, so we know that the days are already getting shorter and, up here in Scotland, darker. For this is what midsummer spells for us, and this, too, is what St John’s birthday heralds.
And this is fitting because it reminds us of St John’s words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). So, the advent of the holy Forerunner’s birth brings with it the decrease in the hours of daylight until we reach the winter solstice, until that time of year when we will celebrate the Saviour’s birth. The natural daylight decreases from the time of St John’s birth even as the supernatural light of grace increases until Christ, the light of the world, shines forth in the darkness and quiet of midwinter. Then, as the book of Wisdom says, “while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone”, that is, when we are half way through the night of winter, Thy all-powerful Word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wis 18:14f). So, today’s feast and the birth of the herald looks forward to that holy night when our Saviour is born.
Now, the thought of Christmas already in June might fill some of us with dread because of the worry of preparations and gift-buying, and so on. However, today’s feast reminds us of the only preparation that is truly necessary if we wish to celebrate Christ’s birth. Today’s second reading reminds us that “before [Christ’s] coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel” (Acts 13:24). So, we prepare for Christ’s coming through repentance, and it’s never too early or inopportune a moment for this.
For repentance, metanoia, is an on-going activity. It means, really, conversion, as I decrease so that Christ can increase in my life. Repentance means less and less of the sinful self that limits and restricts us so that we open our hearts and minds to make room for God’s possibilities and graced activity; so that Christ can be born in us, and his grace can flourish within us. We see this movement in Zechariah, for example, who has to repent of his doubt in the angel’s word, and so open his mind in faith to God’s loving plan of salvation, which is always greater than we can imagine. If we do so, trusting in God’s word and his plans for our good, then, what is said of St John the Baptist can also be said of us: “the child grew and became strong in Spirit” (Lk 1:80). For an on-going conversion to Christ means that we grow as God’s children, and become strong in grace until we are matured in Christ and transformed into his image; until we love and trust God our Father like he, the beloved Son, does. Then, even if our days grow darker and colder, we have the light of Christ and the warmth of God’s love.
This work of God’s transforming grace is thus heralded and preached by St John the Baptist. Thus he is given a new name: John, which means ‘God has been gracious’. And John’s mission of proclaiming God’s gracious activity will come to its climax when he points to Jesus Christ, to the One who is divine grace itself, and he says: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). With this proclamation, John’s mission will be completed, for as St Augustine says: “John is a voice [only] for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning”. Then, the daylight will have decreased and faded for the true Light is come (cf Apoc 21:23).
We saw yesterday that Jesus was born of the surviving branch, the nezer in Hebrew, of David’s royal stock. And so, he was called a Nazarene as the prophets foretold. But today’s readings draw our attention, not to a Nazarene but a Nazirite, from the Hebrew word nazir, meaning ‘consecrated’ or ‘set apart’. And the one who follows in Samson’s footsteps as a Nazirite is St John, the Baptizer.
St Luke wants us to understand that John is from an impeccable priestly lineage; both his parents are from the priestly tribes of Aaron and Levi. So, his ancestry alone would set him apart for the Lord’s service as a priest. When a priest ministered in the Sanctuary, such as Zechariah was doing, he had to abstain from wine and strong drink. But the Nazirite did so for the duration of his vow, and we’re told that St John is to abstain for the whole of his life. So, there is a very strong sense of John being consecrated for priestly service not just by blood but by oath; ministering not just for short durations of service but for his entire life. John is always serving in the Lord’s presence.
And, in an emphasis typical of St Luke, he adds that John “will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:15b). This, and the angel’s description of John’s role as one of turning hearts, indicate that John is not just a priest but also a prophet. For the prophets are those who have a particular intimacy with God, who are in friendship with him, and so, are familiar with God’s ways, and can see far and deeply into God’s activity in the world. Again, this stresses that John is always in God’s presence, continually serving him.
Hence, when Jesus draws near, even in the womb, St John leaps for joy and recognizes his presence. And, again, when Jesus comes down to the Jordan, St John sees immediately that it is the Lord who approaches him. Such sensitivity to the divine comes from his being constantly in God’s service; set apart to be ready for when the Lord comes. Hence he is such a central figure for Advent as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming. However, it seems to me that John is also a reminder of who we are as Christians, not just at Advent but always.
For last Sunday we heard Jesus say in the Gospel: “He who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John]” (Mt 11:11). How? Because of the grace of Christ. So, as John the Baptist was set apart for God, so you and I have been consecrated to Christ through baptism; we belong to Jesus and are held in his love. As John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, so were we from the womb of our Mother, the Church, that is, the baptismal font. Hence baptism makes us friends of God like the prophets, and also priests of God. But, like John,we’re not just called to serve God in certain times in the Temple and Liturgy, but constantly and everywhere. Thus we’re called recognize and serve Christ our God in the poor and needy, in those who mourn, and hunger for justice, in those who long for mercy and compassion.
Like John, such prophetic familiarity and priestly service attunes us to God’s presence among us. Thus, grace moves us to leap for joy when Christ comes to us – not hidden in the Virgin Mother’s womb, but hidden under the sacramental forms of bread and wine here in the Eucharist. God’s Spirit, the gift of faith in us, has prepared us for his coming. For Jesus the Nazarene is here with us now, the living Branch who brings new life and hope; he’s with us now to comfort us and brighten our darkness. So today’s Communion antiphon says: “The Dawn from on high will visit us, guiding our feet in the way of peace”.
“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?