“For now the LORD has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb … and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength!” These very strong words of praise in today’s first reading are assigned by the Sacred Liturgy to St. John the Baptist, whose feast we celebrate today.
Just last week I mentioned that we had finished all the great feasts of Eastertide and were settling back into Ordinary Time. So why are we already interrupting the normal cycle of green Sundays to celebrate another feast day? St. John the Baptist is one of the very few saints whose feast days rank so highly in the Church’s calendar that they displace even the normal Sunday liturgy. St. John the Baptist actually has two feast days – one, today, for his birth, and another for his martyrdom on August 29. So why today? When the Jews ask about John’s relationship to Christ, he responds: “He must increase; I must decrease.” John was the precursor, the one who points the way to Christ. He recognizes that, once Christ’s public ministry has begun, it is time for him to recede into the background – an important lesson of humility for all of us. Before the reform of the calendar by Gregory XIII, the longest day of the year was not June 21, as it is now, but rather today, June 24. So for centuries, Christians have celebrated John the Baptist on the day when the days begin to grow shorter, just as John foretold that he must decrease.
So why is John the Baptist so important? I think that there are two principal reasons for which this feast has always been accorded such a high rank, able to supersede even Sundays. The first is that this is an important event in the history of salvation. John’s birth and the miraculous circumstances surrounding it are recounted in the Gospel of Luke from which we read today. John was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness as foretold by the prophet Isaiah, the last and greatest of the prophets necessary to prepare the way of the Lord. The events we read about today in St. Luke’s Gospel are an essential part of how our redemption came about.
There is also, though, another reason that St. John the Baptist’s feast is so important, and that is where I would like to concentrate today. John reminds us about our own call to be a prophet. Last week, I mentioned how each of us are – by our baptism – priests, prophets, and kings. I gave the example of a woman who exercised the common priesthood (the priesthood of the baptized, as opposed to the ministerial priesthood held only by ordained priests) by inviting me to hear the confession of her non-practicing Catholic friend who was dying.
What does it mean that we are called to be prophets? Normally when we think of prophecy, we think – more or less – of telling the future. But that is not really what St. John the Baptist does. Nor, really, is it what the prophets in the Old Testament do most of the time. The prophets is to call the people back to God. In the Old Testament, that meant calling them to be faithful to the promises they had made to God (the Covenant), to abandon the worship of false idols. For John the Baptist, prophecy means calling the people’s attention to God-made-man, to Christ, which makes John the greatest prophet of all, the one of whom Christ Himself says, “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11).
If you know much about John the Baptist, he seems like an unlikely character to be successful in this mission, at least by today’s standard. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, we read that “John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mat. 3:4). The first thing that St. Matthew reports John as saying is, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the [coming wrath]?” (Mat. 3:7). That does not sound very welcoming to me! And yet, at the same time, St. Matthew reports that John was attracting many, many people: “Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:5-6).
How, then, does John the Baptist have the power to attract, the power to elicit confession of sins and conversion of life, even while he is so odd (to put it quite mildly)? Actually, it’s precisely because of how different John is that he is able to attract so many people, not in spite of it. So like John the Baptist, we will be able to attract others to Christ not by blending into the world, by working on the level of the world, but rather by presenting the world with something new, something different, something bold.
You are called to exercise your prophetic vocation, like John the Baptist, by being distinctively Catholic. It is when our lives are markedly, noticeably different because of what we believe that we will be able to give a consistent witness to the liberating power of the truths that we profess. So how, then, can we live distinctively Catholic lives? I want to offer just an outline of suggestions that you might think about:
First, the language with which we speak. John the Baptist used fiery language that excited his hearers. It might not be prudent for us to make accusations like John did to the Pharisees (“You brood of vipers!”), but the language with which we speak out to be marked with an awareness of our faith. That means that there are certain things that we don’t say (curses, foul language, insults, gossip, etc.), but it also refers to the things that we do say. John the Baptist pointed out Christ to others, such as his words that we repeat at every Mass, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world!” Our words ought to point out Christ to others. This means being able to speak about the ways that our faith brings joy to our lives.
Another way to be distinctively Catholic would be to think about our presence on social media. Could someone tell that you are Catholic by looking at your Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.? That does not just mean putting up pious pictures of Mary, though. It means that the way you approach any topic (politics, morality, etc.) is always informed by the teachings of the Church.
Modesty in dress is another way to present ourselves as distinctively Catholic. This is not just an issue for ladies, and it is not just an issue for young ladies. In an increasingly sexualized society, don’t give in to our culture’s expectations about standards of dress designed more to reveal than to clothe. This is an area where parents have the opportunity to tutor their children in virtue and teach them to value themselves for who they are as sons and daughters of God, rather than for how many “likes” their Instagram posts get.
Being willing to pray in public is another form of distinctive Catholicism. In many Catholic countries it used to be the case that when the Angelus bells rang at six, twelve, and six everyone stopped to pray the Angelus prayer together. I am always amazed when I see Muslims praying in airports, bus stations, wherever, and yet we Christians think that we can maintain a living faith in God without praying to him constantly throughout the day. I have had so many good conversations because someone takes an interest in my breviary or rosary when I am praying in public.
One last way that we can live distinctively as Catholics is by rejecting materialism. This is the tendency to be obsessed with material things – the latest gadgets, the best vacation destinations, the flashiest car, etc. Materialism pervades our lives. It is not a problem because technological innovation, vacations, or cars are bad things. Rather, by focusing obsessively on these material things, we can be lured into a mindset that sees material things as the truest reality, instead of making God and the things of God the true center of our existence. Pulling a flip-phone out of your pocket or going camping together as a family are a great way to invite a conversation about your intentions of living simply. When I think about those who reject materialism, my mind always goes to those married couples that are heroically open to life, welcoming a large number of children into their families. The necessary sacrifices that this life entails are a wonderful remedy to the world’s philosophy of materialism.
This prophetic witness is the authentic vocation of the lay faithful, who are called to witness to God’s love in the world, a love that transcends materialism and every other false ideology. A true exercise of the lay vocation, living your faith in the world, is what the Second Vatican Council desired to promote. Too often, we associate the reforms of the Council with giving lay people the ability to do things that only the clergy could do before – read the Scriptures at Mass, distribute Holy Communion, etc. But to locate the dignity and mission of the lay faithful in these sorts of activities is ultimately demeaning to the laity, but it would suggest that, in order to have this great dignity, you have to be more like the priest. But that is the furthest thing from the truth!
You have a prophetic vocation, a calling from God to bring his love to the world, just as St. John the Baptist did. God entrusts this mission to you because He knows the power of His love and grace to transform your life and make you a prophetic witness. Do not sell yourself short by thinking that you need to be more like me or any other priest, or that you need to do the things that priests and deacons do in order to be an essential member of the Church. God has called you to be His prophet.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, A.D. MMXVIII