Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner.
The Bible is full of birth stories. There’s birth upon birth, often with a touch of the dramatic and supernatural: Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob’s many sons, Moses saved by the midwives, Samson the strong man, Samuel the prophet. There are towards thirty genealogies in Scripture as a whole. We have a sense of a stubborn people, hanging on, continuing through history. As Jesus approaches, our liturgy remembers the birth of Mary, his mother. And today, the next step, we have the birth of John. “And [Elizabeth] gave birth to a child; and when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had shown her so great kindness, they shared her joy” (Lk 1:57-58). Significantly, after the birth of John the Baptist, there’s only one other recounted: the birth of Jesus from Mary. The series of biblical births leads to him, to his being born. He is born of the Father before time began. He is born of the Virgin in the stable-cave of Bethlehem, born into this life. Then having suffered and died, he is born again from the empty tomb: he rises to imperishable life. These births of the Son lead to our rebirth as God’s sons and daughters. Or rather, to his further – mystical, sacramental – birth in us. We – our lives, our hearts, our communities – are worlds where God the Father wants to reproduce, to generate his beloved Son. Everything is meant for this. Everything points to Christ, finds it purpose and meaning in him: come alive in us. “There is one coming after me”, says John (Acts 13:25). There is one for whom we’re all made.
There’s a first thought this feast suggests, but let me park it for a while. There’s something else remarkable in today’s Gospel. It doesn’t just mention John’s birth. It mentions his circumcision, eight days later, and his naming. Then, further still: “The child grew and his spirit matured” (Lk 1:80). We’re running through the years. And here are we today, surrounded by children and young people. Here six of our seven Primary Schools are represented. Here are the Kids for Jesus, children from Aberdeen’s Polish St Stanislaus’ School. Here are youth groups from Aberdeen and Elgin and elsewhere, led by the St Andrew Community and the Dominican Sisters. Here we are, “together in Christ”, the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church gathered in this place. We are recalling the centenary year of the Education Act (Scotland), a hundred years of partnership between the Catholic community and local government. How good to be here! How right and just to thank all those who keep our schools afloat and make them the bright communities of faith and learning and values that they are! And how good too to have the value of that 1918 Act and of the 350+ Schools we enjoy as a result recently so ringingly reaffirmed by the First Minister. Let’s not forget that until the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 to open a Catholic School in Scotland, England or Wales was a crime, and the punishment life imprisonment. Yes, praise the Lord! And to us, like a shooting star and a guiding star, comes this simple word of the Lord: “The child grew and his spirit matured”. This child is John, and every child here. Let’s focus on this. On one occasion, Jesus took a child, embraced him and set him in the middle of his disciples. That’s what’s happening today. Let us embrace our children: with our respect, our love, our care and prayer.
For there is a natural question – for us who are older, who have in differing ways responsibility for the young. What do we want for them? How can we serve them? This touches us all. Our teachers and their many assistants, of course, but for parents and grandparents too and, in the parishes, catechists, children’s liturgists, Safeguarding coordinators, the youth leaders who may function across parishes, the priests and the deacons – all who have care for the young in whatever way. Here’s the other partnership: of family, school and parish. And the question to all of us is: What, in relation to the young, are we about? What do we want for them? What divine purpose are we serving? It’s not a little question. We know, don’t we, from bitter experience, that we haven’t always go it right. And where do we go to help get it right? Perhaps today’s Gospel will do: ‘The child grew and his spirit matured.’
In that line, there are two things. First, “the child grew.” Well, children do. We’ve all with more or less success navigated that process. It’s physical and psychological. It’s chemistry and hormones and neurophysiology. It’s well charted. And it happens. In a sense, it more or less takes care of itself. “The earth produces of itself” (Mk 4:28). But then comes: “and his spirit matured”. We move to another plane. Surely, this is it; this is what it’s about. This is the focus of upbringing and education and Christian formation. It is service of the spirit and its maturing.
The ‘spirit’. “We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution”, said Pope Benedict once. “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” That’s what ‘spirit’ means. ‘Spirit’ is that breath of God which makes us human, more than just another animal. Spirit’s what most counts about us. It’s what’s most vital and precious. It’s what’s eternal in us, what lasts, what weighs. It’s our dignity. It’s the core of our freedom. It’s where we choose goodness and truth, where we fight our vices and demons, where we’re chastened, purified, healed, where we can always start again. It’s what we really salute and cherish in others: more important than looks or health or status or money or cleverness; their spirit, their person, their character. As they say in Aberdeen, ‘she’s nae a bonny quine, but she’s a fine quine.’ The ‘spirit’ is our beauty. It’s what grounds the respect that is everyone’s due. It’s where we’re touched by God, held by God, known to God. It’s where we turn to him, uncover our own vocation, where we believe and hope and love and pray. “And his spirit matured As Catholic Christians, we believe with all our hearts in this spirit breathed into our human clay by God. We are passionate humanists. And it’s our privilege as parents, teachers, pastors, in our threefold partnership, to serve this God-given spirit and its true maturing. To see it ripening, often unexpectedly. To untwine the ivy and uproot the weeds when needed, but never so roughly that we maul the tree. To aid and abet its bearing fruit. Eliciting an alert conscience, seconding freedom, encouraging virtue, fostering good habits, indicating respect, supporting decency, kindness, chastity, helping each to find their vocation in life and mature like the Baptist into a mission. Pope Francis talks of “ethical formation”, “correction as incentive”, “patient realism” (AL, Ch. 7).
“And his spirit matured”. Literally, “was strengthened”. So with our children. And here we come to the Catholic nub: the spirit strengthened by God “in the places we ourselves cannot reach” (AL 287), strengthened in the wildernesses of sorrow and solitude. Strengthened by faith, our strongest card and best gift, God’s word. Strengthened by God’s sacramental grace: Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation. What things these are for families, parishes and schools to offer! Strengthened by Catholic fellowship and the communion of saints. Strengthened by a practice of prayer. Strengthened by sensitivity to the suffering and those deprived of justice. Strengthened by Christ, who is the best we can give our youngsters, leading them to know him, love him, follow him.
“And the child grew and his spirit matured…until the day he appeared openly to Israel.” Isn’t it all there? Isn’t that our hope?
Children are a gift, entrusted to us, to be given back. Let’s take up our responsibilities towards them, day after day. Pope Francis has four good adverbs: “consciously, enthusiastically, realistically and appropriately” (AL 259). We remember our own parents and teachers and the men and women of God who formed us in the faith. Let’s be grateful for the inspiration of the past and atone for its sometime sins. Let’s try to be John the Baptists ourselves: passionate, preparing the way of the Lord in the hearts of the young, ready to “decrease” so that Christ “may increase”.
This holy place is dedicated, first, to our Lady and St John the Baptist, a significant pairing. This years’ pilgrimage honours St John especially and honours the Mother of God every year. At the end of the Mass, children and adults, we’ll all process to the garden to do that. She’s the God-bearer, the Christ-bearer. She brought Christ into the world and she brings about his mystical birth in our lives. Let’s try to be Marys ourselves: our homes, schools, parishes, our diocese. “Little children, said the great Christian educator St Paul, “I am in travail until Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4:19).
“And the child grew and his spirit matured…until the day he appeared openly to Israel.” It’s a beautiful thing to be part of. Thanks be to God! Let’s keep it up! Amen.
Pluscarden Diocesan Pilgrimage, 24 June 2018