Homily for the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, 2012
Today we celebrate how God prepared a people, prepared a nation, sent prophets and a law into the world to receive the gift of his Son. Might we ask, well why didn’t he just surprise us?
A question: if we had not been prepared, would we have noticed the life and death of a simple, solitary man? One who, in the estimation of this world was not of any note? How many people who lived more than 2000 years ago could most of us list off the top of our heads? I imagine the list would not have more than 20 names for most of us, maybe even fewer than 10.
Well, we might ask, why didn’t God become man as one of those people whose names are listed in the history books? Why didn’t he become a great king and mighty ruler?
But we know the answer to that question, don’t we? In Christ God wanted to reveal to us his saving power in the midst of weakness and darkness, which is where we need his salvation. And so he needed to prepare us, needed to prepare a people to recognize in the humble frame of his Son Jesus, who was crucified like a common criminal, not just another tragic story of the suffering of this world, but the very image of God himself.
Today we celebrate the final stage of that preparation: with the Nativity, or the birth, of St. John the Baptist, and we celebrate that time of preparation that God spent getting the world ready for his Son.
Now, this is a very important feast for all of us, because think of how many people we run into each day – former Catholics or others, who are distant from the Church or who do not see any need for the Church. How many who live in our families – our own children and grandchildren. We cannot simply spring the faith on them. Surprise, you get to come to Mass with us! Here’s a Bible! But what do we do? I think this is a question that really gets to many of us. We pray for those we love who have left the practice of the faith, and that is certainly important and needed.
But today we can also learn from the way that God prepared his people before Christ’s birth, we can learn from the feast that we celebrate today how we too can help prepare the way for Christ to enter the lives of our brothers and sisters who have either fallen away from the faith or who never had faith.
So how did God prepare his people to receive his Son? I think we can see three stages:
First he impressed upon them that life is a gift that he gives to us because he loves us. This truth of God’s goodness and of the goodness of life is something that most people recognize – that each day we are alive not by our own power, but by the power of another. And this is really the first foundation stone of faith. To recognize that we are dependent on God, and that God is good to us. The first 3 of the 10 commandments focus on this teaching, Genesis focuses on this teaching. God worked to help the Hebrew people recognize their reliance on him, and to become more and more grateful for his goodness. We can see in the Psalms that they responded to his revelation with praise and thanksgiving. Even in hardship, they took to heart God’s goodness. They were grateful for what they were given.
And I think that more than many things, this is one of the most important preparations for Christ that we can make in our culture. If you are not grateful for your life and for what you have, then you will not want to love God or love Jesus Christ. If we are able to live a spirit of gratitude and to point out to those around us that we have no right to what we have. To avoid any sense of entitlement, and instead to recognize our complete reliance on God. Without gratitude, without a sense of thankfulness to God, there can be no love of God. How do we live gratefully? How do we help our families to be grateful?
Gratitude to God is the most fitting motivation to go to Mass. To thank him for what he has given us during the rest of the week. Not seeking what we can get out of Mass, but seeking instead to give God what we can of our lives in order to thank him for his generosity.
In a second stage, From this gratitude for everything, also comes the sense of duty or obligation to respond. When someone gives you a gift, even the most basic of human cultures have understood that it is only right to say thank you. That is what we do here at Mass – we do what we ought, as receivers of such great gifts: we say thank you to God. And we can see that in the law, God showed his people how to respond to his gifts: to respect and honor life, ones parents, the truth, the material things of this world. And we too, prepare the way for Christ when we show others through our actions and words that we know that the gifts we have received deserve to be honored and respected. Gratitude should mature into respect and honor.
In the third and final stage of preparation, God revealed to his people how weak and incapable they were at adequately respecting and honoring his gifts. He showed them their sins. He showed them their infidelity – how they had turned to other gods instead of him. How they had wasted the gifts he had given them, trampled the lives of the innocent he entrusted to their care. He showed them that they needed forgiveness and repentance. That final stage culminated in John the Baptist, who preached repentance. Repentance for a people who were incapable of loving God and honoring God as they should. A grateful but sinful people are the only people who need a savior, someone to help them offer God fitting praise and thanksgiving. And when they recognized that, when they recognized their need for God, their need for a savior, they were ready for Jesus Christ.
Of all St. John the Baptist’s virtues, perhaps the greatest was his humility. He was grateful to God for what he had been given and for his work of announcing Christ. He had a profound sense of responsibility and of his duty to respond to the God who had given him his life by serving him. And so he went into the desert and preached repentance, proclaiming that he was not worthy to even untie the sandal straps of the God he served. May we follow his example of humble and grateful service, and may we be that voice in the wilderness that proclaims God’s praise and our need for his mercy and forgiveness.