‘His name is John’ (Lk 1:63).
Today we keep the birthday of this John, John the Baptiser. After our Lord, the Church keeps the earthly birthdays only of Mary and of John. So, six months and a day before the birth of our Lord, we are keeping the birthday of his cousin, the one who went before him, baptised him and died for him.
Why do we keep the birthday, the earthly birthday, of John?
We heard one answer in the first reading: ‘The Lord called me before I was born; from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name’ (Is 49:1). And in the first reading of the Vigil Mass: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you. I have appointed you as prophet to the nations’ (Jer 1:5). God knew John, God had conceived the thought of John, God had predestined John, from all eternity. God in his goodness gave him to this elderly infertile couple, and filled him with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. ‘He will be called John,’ said Elizabeth (Lk 1:60). ‘His name is John’, wrote Zechariah. They were echoing God’s thought: it was the name given by the angel nine months before (cf. Lk 1:13), It was the name God the Father had given this child in eternity.
Why keep the earthly birthday of John? Because everything in him: his conception, his leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visited with Jesus in hers, his birth, his time in the desert, his preaching and baptising, his death – everything is full of the Holy Spirit, alive with God, everything is a gift to us, everything is for the Church. His whole life. The mystery and power of this great figure. A monk, centuries ago, said John’s voice is ‘an everlasting voice’. And Origen said that the spirit of John is always at work in the world. John, after Mary, is the closest to the risen Christ and therefore closest to us.
‘His name is John.’ Elizabeth said it, Zechariah wrote it, the Gospel proclaims it.
I’d like to recall briefly first his birth, then his life, then his death.
The human race begins when the first man and the first woman become one flesh: so Genesis. The people of Israel begin when Abraham and Sarah have Isaac, despite their age. ‘God has given me cause to laugh,’ cries Sarah; ‘all those who hear of it will laugh with me’ (Gen 21:6). Isn’t it striking that the story of the new humanity, the new Israel, begins with a birth: John’s? ‘And when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had shown so great a kindness, they shared her joy’ (lk 1:58). Elizabeth laughs. Pope John Paul II famously wrote: ‘the future of humanity passes by way of the family.’ God himself passes by way of the family. Abraham and Sarah, an elderly childless couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth the same. Is there any family that isn’t, sometimes anyway, home to tears, to sadness or grief, some pain, some lack, some loss, some brokeness. But God passes by way of the family. God gives life where hope has died. God gives laughter and joy. ‘His name is John.’ God is faithful to the word of his original blessing: ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:28). God gives life, again and again, conception after conception. A friend of mine, who was with his wife when she gave birth, said, ‘You cannot see this and be an atheist.’ God gives life even where there is no life. He gives a child to Abraham and Sarah, to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Even more amazingly, he gives a child to a virgin, without a man involved at all. ‘And you will call his name, Jesus’ (Lk 1:31) All of these things point to the greatest life-giving of all, the raising of the Crucified and buried one, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead, the beginning of the new creation. So this little / great miracle with which the Gospel opens, this birth of John, can come as a comfort to every family. John who gave joy to his mother and father can encourage all whose vocation it is to marry and raise a family. God passes this way. If he doesn’t give physical life or takes it away, he can give another level of life as well, a richness of spirit, a widening of the heart, a capacity to comfort, another kind of parenting.
‘His name is John.’ I think we Europeans need to hear this especially. Without the faith, it has been said, Europe will die. Europe will die if Europeans lack the faith, hope, and love to have children. The future of Europe passes by way of the family. God passes by way of the love of man and woman and the life that comes from it. There are so many reasons for refusing that life, so many means for doing so. But if we turn our back on it, as a society, a civilisation, we die.
‘Meanwhile, the Gospel goes on, the child grew up and his spirit matured. And he lived out in the wilderness until the day he appeared openly to Israel’ (Lk 1:80). Here’s a second striking thing. This son, like Mary’s son, like Jesus, didn’t marry. He didn’t raise a family. So monks have always looked to John, priests and bishops can look to him too, any single person can. God, the life-giving God, passes this way too, through the wilderness, the solitude of singleness. ‘The friend of the Bridegroom’, John called himself (Jn 3:29). He was tasked with ‘preparing a people fit for the Lord’ (Lk 1:17), preparing the Bride who is the Church for her husband Christ. John didn’t marry; he was called to serve what marriage symbolises. ‘He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’ (1 Cor 6:17). And this was his joy. ‘The bride is only for the bridegroom; and yet the bridegroom’s friend, who stands there and listens, is glad when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. This same joy I feel, and now it is complete. He must grow greater. I must grow smaller’ (Jn 3:29-30). When at the banks of the Jordan, John grew smaller and gave way to Jesus and baptised him, he was letting the Bridegroom find the Bride. He was letting him go down into the waters of human suffering to lift us out of them. He was opening the way to the union of God and man in the body of Christ, and the life of the world to come. There, we are told, there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, and God will be all in all. So John comes as a comfort too to all those who, by choice, or by necessity, inner or outer, are alone. He encourages all whose vocation involves singleness, celibacy. John’s spirit is still at work in the world in this way too. The loving, life-giving God passes this way also. And the house of love has many mansions.
And so to the end. It wasn’t a happy ending, humanly speaking. We know the story. Herod’s birthday, Herod drunk, aroused by the dancing of Salome, promising recklessly, and Herodias seizing her chance. How she must have laughed! ‘The head of John the Baptist on a dish’ (Mt 14:8). What a delicious dish for her, that everlasting voice everlastingly silenced. It’s a horrible story. And here I think John comes for us all. He encourages us in our common Christian witness. We share a situation with him. Why was John in prison? The Herod concerned, a son of the Herod who had had the baby boys in Bethlehem murdered, had been in Rome on one occasion. And there he had met Herodias, the wife of one of his half-brothers. The two fell wildly in love, and eventually married. There were three things wrong with this marriage. Firstly, they were both already married; secondly, Herodias was Herod’s niece; and thirdly, it was against the Law of Moses to marry your brother’s wife. This was what John underscored. ‘It is not lawful to take your brother’s wife’ (Mk 6:18). John said that and took the consequences. The contemporary relevance is clear. Not every love is entitled to sexual expression. We all know that. Not every love is entitled to the dignity of marriage. We all know that too. Politically, Herod’s ‘marriage’ to Herodias caused chaos. And so will the changes currently proposed to the understanding of marriage. Love has many mansions, but marriage is the only true home of sexual love. And marriage is between a man and a woman free to marry, not between anyone else. And here’s a third extraordinary thing. This single man, this prophet of the Coming One, didn’t die directly for Christ. He died to uphold the truth of marriage. We are called, here and now, in this country, to uphold the very same. We’re called not just to think it, but to pray it, say it and write it.
I’m sorry even to have to refer to these things. But such is our world.
‘His name is John,’ He’s a wonderful gift of God, alive in Christ, close to us. In this Eucharist, we can lift up our hearts and give thanks for him. We hear his everlasting voice at every Mass: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.’ And if we go out from here with his fire in our hearts, the rain won’t have mattered at all, and our pilgrimage will have been worthwhile.
St. John the Baptist, pray for the married, pray for the single, pray for all of us!