Sunday, June 24, is the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist.
Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 139:1-3, 13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80
It’s hard to find a famous baby. But they are out there. When Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the famous aviator, was born in Englewood, N.Y., a small army of journalists were camped outside the estate of his birthplace to tell the world. Atchison, Kan., bills itself as the birthplace of another famous aviator: Amelia Earhart. But she is only a famous baby in retrospect. When she was born a few blocks away from our house, in a room that overlooks the Missouri River, no one was waiting to report the news to anyone outside the immediate family.
These are the two ways babies become famous: If their birth is marked and heralded by the world, it means that their parents are important. If they are destined to be great themselves, their birth may be heralded someday, but only long after they are no longer babies.
Today we do one of the most unusual things in the liturgical calendar: We celebrate the birth of a baby who is heralded from the very beginning as great. There are only two other figures whose births have become liturgical celebrations: Mary on Sept. 8 and Jesus on Dec. 25. Of the two, we only have records of Jesus being heralded as great from infancy.
The Mass today shows us the ominous portents that accompanied the birth of John. His father Zechariah was struck speechless until he assented to the miracle of his son’s birth by acknowledging the name John that had been given him by an angel.
Why was John so great, even as a baby? The beautiful prayer with which Zechariah greeted his boy explains why. It is called the Benedictus, and it is prayed every morning in the Divine Office. In it, Zechariah praises the Savior who would “set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Then, he addresses the baby: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”
Thus, from the very beginning, John’s very identity is linked to Jesus. We will see this throughout his life, but, for now, we see it throughout today’s readings. The first reading is one of the “servant poems” from Isaiah, which are about Christ, but also about those closely identified with Jesus’ mission. “The Lord called me from birth; from my mother’s womb, he gave me my name,” it says. “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
The second reading tells of John’s role in that plan of salvation. In Acts, St. Paul explains that “John heralded [Christ’s] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel; and as John was completing his course, he would say … ‘I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.’”
If you look at the typical words used to explain John and Jesus, you see how close they are. John is the “Voice”; Jesus is the “Word.” John is the last in the line of prophets. Jesus is the final revelation. John will preach repentance. Jesus will grant new life. John would condemn the sin of those in power and thus be put to death. Jesus, the most powerful man on earth, would take the sin of all onto himself and die for us.
And if we are impressed that John was heralded at his birth by a great prediction, we should consider this: Jesus said, “There has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
John will baptize Jesus, symbolically, with water. But Jesus will baptize us, literally, with spiritual power. John will see the Spirit descend on Jesus in the Jordan. Jesus will send the Spirit to descend on all his followers. John will point to Jesus and tell us to follow him. Christ will point to his Father and tell us to join him.
So, while it is significant that John was heralded as great as a baby, we can see that each infant who is baptized is even greater, because every baptized person is incorporated into the body of Christ and given divine life as an adopted son of God.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.