Monday, June 25, 2007

Nativity of John the Baptist

Nativity of St. John the Baptist
C cycle

Reading 1. Isaiah 49: 1-6
Reading II.Acts 13:22-26
Gospel. Luke 1: 57-66, 80 (He will be called John)

Today is usually the 12th Sunday in Ordinary time. By "ordinary" the Church means the time of year not marked by great feasts like Christmas and Easter. But today just happens to be the feast day of the birth or nativity of St. John the Baptist and that feast is so great that it supercedes the ordinary Sunday readings.

Coincidentally, if we were using the readings from the 12th Sunday in Ordinary time, the first reading would be from the Prophet Zechariah, a prophet with the same name as the father of John the Baptist. In that reading Zechariah talks of hope. In ordinary time the priest usually wears green, the color associated with hope. The prophet tells the Israelites that even in the midst of great mourning and desolation, the Lord will give them "a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness." Of course, from the earliest days Christians have looked upon Jesus as the fountain from which all hope springs.

But in the readings for this special feast day the Church talks of John, the precursor, the messenger, the herald of Jesus, our hope. The Church has always interpreted the words of Isaiah as referring to John.

The Lord called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword...
He made me a polished arrow,...
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Who was John? The gospels from today's Mass as well as from yesterday's vigil Mass give us an account of the birth of John. The story as narrated by St. Luke bears a remarkable resemblance to the birth of Jesus. Commentators have noted that both accounts are like plays or dramas which can be broken down into acts and scenes. But first, let's look at the cast of characters. In the first account we have Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John. Then, we have Mary, the future mother of Jesus. The angel Gabriel appears in both accounts.

Zechariah's name means ""Yahweh remembers." He was one of the 800 priests of the Temple and he could trace his ancestry back to Aaron, the first high priest. The name of his wife, Elizabeth, means, "God swears." Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, was a good, holy woman but advanced in years and still childless. The name John, which has such importance in today's reading, means "God is gracious." Mary, in Hebrew Miriam, means "the exalted one." Jesus, or Yeshua, means "God's salvation or savior."

The names alone would indicate the importance in Luke's gospel of this account of the births of John and Jesus. But we should also notice the similarities between the two dramas. God's messenger, the angel Gabriel, appears to Zachary in the inner sanctum of the Temple just as he would later appear to Mary. Both of them express anxiety at the appearance but are told, "Do not fear." The angel makes a mysterious announcement and both Zachary and Mary respond with a question. Zachary's doubt causes him to be struck dumb until after the birth of John when his acceptance restores his speech. But Mary's acceptance--"Be it done unto me according to thy word"--is immediate.

There are even more parallels but it is enough to say that St. Luke didn't mean these accounts to be merely charming little stories. The life and mission of John is linked with the life and mission of Jesus from the beginning. John preached repentance while the gospel of Jesus is all about the completion of repentance--forgiveness and healing. Now we don't have to go out into the desert to find repentance. In fact, the Church makes it kind of easy for us. Forget for a moment the great sacrament of Penance, did you ever notice how often during the Mass we are given opportunities for repentance and forgiveness.

Right at the beginning we ask for mercy from the Trinity in the Kyrie, one of the oldest prayers in the liturgy. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." Right after that in the Confiteor we confess our sins. "I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters...."

Later we all say the "Our Father" that famous prayer composed by Jesus, himself. In it we say, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." The great St. Augustine said that the sincere recitation of these words of repentance was enough to gain forgiveness for most of our sins. Right after the Lord's Prayer we turn to each other and offer the Lord's "Kiss of Peace," a sign of our reconciliation with our neighbor.

Finally, before receiving our Lord in Communion we prepare ourselves with another act of repentance. We join together and say the "Agnus Dei"

"Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace."

Then, we follow by paraphrasing the words of the Roman soldier who asked our Lord to heal his son. "Lord I am not worthy that thou should come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

A few years ago there was a saying that became very popular. It was, " Happiness is never having to say you're sorry." This sounded good but was mistaken. I think that most psychologists would agree that a sincere expression of sorrow or repentance is the first step toward happiness for us and for those we've offended.


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