I’m not sure if that is a single character in all of the Scriptures who invokes the image of a prophet more clearly in our minds than John the Baptist. We picture him, I think, as an amalgam of all of the gospel accounts: dressed in camel’s hair, living in a desert, looking a little wild-eyed and crazy. We hear the famous words that he spoke and that the gospel writers speak about him. John “prepared the way of the Lord,” made the “rough ways plain, lowered the mountains and raised the valleys” so that our God could come to us more easily and abundantly. John cried out to all who would listen, calling them to repentance for their sins, even as he calls us to end our religious hypocrisies. It was what John was born to do.
Our Scriptures this weekend describe how God prepared John for his task: not just in the great story of the angel and Zechariah and the naming of John, but also in the poetry of the first reading, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” So John grows up, knowing that the hand of God was upon him. Hearing the stories (perhaps way too often when Zachariah had one too many) of the awe inspiring events around his birth with the question everyone is asking: “What will this child be? – John knows something is afoot. John knows that he has been born for God’s task of pointing to Jesus.
What the church proclaims about these great figures is also what we believe to be true about us. From the beginning of time, the same Love that created us, has been calling us and preparing us to put our lives at the service of love in our world. You and I were born to do something. God has been preparing us to proclaim the presence of Love in our midst, calling us to share more deeply in his life and inviting us to witness to that love. That part is settled – what we are born to do is to be beloved sons and daughters. HOW we do that, what shape that takes, that is a bit more difficult to ascertain. How do we know what we were born to do?
Sometimes it is an internal call we heed. Some people always knew they were supposed to be a doctor. Or a nurse. Or a lawyer. Or a priest. There was never a question in their mind about that. (I hated those people because I never had that kind of certainty.) John seemed to always know: “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Others discover what they are to do in the events of their lives. Sr. Helen Prejean, of Dead Man Walking fame, never set out to be an advocate for people on death row or for abolishing the death penalty. She just became a pen pal of an inmate at the request of a friend. “Pretty soon, that little stream joined a bigger and bigger one – and now I find I’m traveling the world – trying to be the face of love to victims and killers alike.” It is the unfolding of our personal history in all those seemingly insignificant choices that teach us what we were born for.
And sometimes, it is the course of history that helps shape us. I think of the men and women of what Tom Brokov called the greatest generation – those who were called to fight in WWII. They had ordinary dreams – to fall in love, to wed, to raise children, to enjoy old age. Yet, when history’s stage called, they responded.
We are in the middle of another of those defining moments in our country’s history. As you know, our Bishops have invited us to a Fortnight for Freedom – Fourteen days, leading up to the celebration of Independence day, where the church asks us to pray for our most cherished liberty, that of religious freedom. And that is more than just the freedom to worship, but the freedom to exercise our beliefs in the public square free from interference. There are worrying measures threatening our religious freedom on the state and national level – such as laws which would prohibit the spiritual and charitable assistance given by the church to undocumented immigrants. On the national level, the health care mandate that would require employers, including Catholic agencies, to provide insurance that violates our belief in the sanctity of life. To that end, there is an insert in the bulletin, a link to the Archbishop’s video in the pastor’s pen, as well as other concrete action steps in the bulletin, giving practical ways to on where and how to respond and a blue prayer card at the entrances of church, to pray daily with your family.
You know, I’m pretty sure that John the Baptist is the only other person aside from Jesus whose birthday celebration bumps the regular Sunday readings. I’m not sure historically why John’s birth is given such importance in the Church’s calendar. But I’d like to think that it is because John’s birth reminds us that we are all born to do something amazing for God. We are all born to prepare the way of the Lord. Through the intercession of St. John, may we have a share in the courage he knew, so we can do what we were born to do…