John, mystic and prophet
(Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the feast of John the Baptist's birth. The readings today show how God calls particular individuals to cooperate with his plan of salvation, and in particular we commemorate the unique part that John was called to play in the events leading up to the coming of the Messiah.
Coming together as God's family...
The authors of the books of the Bible believed firmly that behind all the events of history - the rising and falling of the world's empires, the great but fleeting achievements of the world's kings and Pharaohs and Caesars - God was working patiently and unobtrusively over the course of centuries to bring his own, very different, plans to fulfilment.
At each stage in his plan, God always chose to call particular individuals to cooperate with him, to awaken the majority to his presence and to make them aware of their calling to live in communion with him.
People like Abraham and Moses and the prophets were all individuals who, in the period of the Old Covenant, responded to an intuition that God was calling them to carry out some special service on his behalf.
Later, at the outset of the New Covenant, it was Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and their son John, who learned, in different ways, that they were being called by God to play a particular part in the working-out of his overall plan. Today's feast highlights the particular vocation of John, Jesus' cousin, and today's readings all point to the way that, even before he was born, John was someone whom God had marked out for a unique mission in life, as herald of the Messiah.
John fulfilled his unique vocation in two ways. First, as Saint Luke says in the gospel passage, he "lived out in the wilderness until the day he appeared openly".
I was reading a book recently in which the author defined the monk as someone for whom "only God is wholly interesting" - and in that sense John was the archetypal monk. John felt driven to the solitude and silence of the desert because for him, as for all pure mystics or contemplatives, the invisible spiritual world - the world of God - was more real and far more important than the visible, material world around him.
John felt no attraction to the self-centred, worldly goals that absorb the energies of so many other people, then and now. Again, as with all mystics and contemplatives, he was more concerned to make contact with God, to fill his mind with the consciousness of God, and to offer God the adoration that comes more and more naturally to us the closer we let ourselves be drawn into God's orbit.
The second way that John fulfilled his God-given mission was, as Saint Paul says in the second reading today, as a preacher of repentance.
John emerged from the depths of his own prayer and meditation to castigate his fellow-believers for their lukewarmness, their pursuit of ambitions in life that brought them no nearer to God, their habit of living, in effect, as though God didn't exist. As someone for whom "only God is wholly interesting" John addressed the rest of the community with a genuine sense of amazement and indignation and exasperation that anyone should pass his or her life oblivious of the needs of their own souls.
And of course his indignation and amazement were so obviously genuine, and so obviously rooted in his own deep knowledge of God, that many people were moved by his words and came to receive baptism from him as a way of symbolising their decision to turn their lives from that moment in the direction of God.
In his preaching John was very resolute in pointing away from himself and towards Christ: "there is one coming after me, and I am not fit to undo his sandal". But the arrival of Christ on the scene didn't mean that John became irrelevant.
He remains relevant because as long as we continue to commemorate John in the Church's public prayer, as we do on several dates in the Church's calendar, John continues to exercise his prophetic ministry, raising our consciousness of God and reminding us of the need for silence and prayer and contemplation in order to deepen our consciousness of God, and also castigating us as he did the people of his own day for giving all sorts of inferior things more importance than God and effectively living as though God doesn't exist.
Those are some of the ways we can hold John in esteem and appreciate the special vocation that we celebrate with today's feast.