Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Homily for the Birth of John the Baptist

I have an important announcement for you all: only six months until Christmas.

In a famous homily, St. Augustine noted that John the Baptist’s birth came at the height of summer, and for the days following, the hours of sunlight would grow shorter. This is fit for John, who said of himself, “I must decrease so that Christ may increase.” And indeed, when we celebrate Christ’s birth in six months, we will also celebrate the rebirth of the sun, the light of this material world, a symbol of Christ’s light.

One might think that the light of the world, Lumen Christi, the lights that enlightens everyone, would not need a herald. The early Church did not seem to have a problem with this, but we do. Just as an example of John clear place in the early Church, perhaps a place on par with the Virgin Mary herself, we can point to the fact that today’s Mass is one of only a handful on the calendar with a Vigil Mass. This suggests great antiquity. St. Augustine again, in this morning’s reading from the office of vigils, uses the fact that already at his time this feast was considered ancient, as a reason to pay close attention. St. Augustine urges us and those of his own time to be instructed by the Church’s liturgy. So, too, we must pay close attention to the figure of John.

If we struggle with the idea that Jesus would need a herald today, I suggest that this is parallel to the difficulty that we have in understanding that Jesus is revealed primarily in His Church. We tend to believe, with no rational basis, in my opinion, that Christ simply speaks directly to each believer in our own minds. The problem with this is a bifurcation between our public and private selves. We risk losing the fact that the gospel is a public proclamation of the true king of the cosmos, not an inner light for individuals to access when they need a pick-me-up. Indeed, we are called to imitate John the Baptist by proclaiming and pointing to Christ, precisely because it is by preaching that the Word of God is heard. We do not need to be ordained to carry this out: we can, as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “preach always, use words when necessary.”

But perhaps more significantly, we need the figure of John the Baptist to remind us that we must be on the alert for Christ, and be attentive to when He is being pointed out to us. Our Benedictine spirituality should be well suited to this: in fact, St. Benedict is not unlike John the Baptist, a man who didn’t even sign his Rule, his masterpiece that transformed the West, but was rather content to point to Christ in all things. Here is Christ in the person of the abbot. Here is Christ in the poor at the door, in the guest who wishes to pray with us, in the senior, in the junior, in the brothers whose feet I wash when my week of table service has come to a close. Here is Christ in the Divine Office, here with all His angels in fact. Here is Christ in the writing of the approved Catholic and orthodox Fathers, in St. Basil and St. John Cassian.

If we are called to imitate John, surely we must see Christ before we can point to him. This requires the gift of the Holy Spirit, but receiving this gift requires us to be open, docile, hungry for righteousness, thirsting for justice, desiring learning and loving God. Let us ask the intercession of this, the greatest of all the prophets, that we may be zealous for the Lord God, and eager to decrease that Christ may be all in all.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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