Nativity of St. John the Baptist
24 June 2018
This year the observance of the nativity of St. John the Baptist falls on a weekend, meaning it replaces the normal Sunday Mass. Most of the saints in our liturgical calendar have a feast day that is placed more or less on the day we call their “birth” into eternal life, meaning the day of their death. Only a very few saints have multiple celebrations in the calendar, and fewer still have observances of their literal birth in time, their birth on earth in addition to their birth into eternity. St. John the Baptist is one such saint. That we observe his nativity tells us that he and his mission are incredibly important to our faith as Catholics.
My reflections on this nativity of St. John the Baptist do not rest so much on the Scripture selections themselves but rather on the simple fact that we are asked to celebrate the birth of a “radical.” It is rather curious and maybe even comical. Look at us! Here we are as thoroughly modern people. For the most part we are dressed rather well. We have our comforts and our controlled environment here. We probably think we know what we need to hear from God. We may even think we are doing God a favor by being here. And we gather to celebrate the birth of a guy who went around in camel hair and ate locusts! And more than that, he spoke a strongly critical message and stern warning about the day of God’s judgment! Meanwhile we – and by “we,” I mean I – fret about the thermostats before each Mass and when we arrive we say, thanks be to God, no one parked in the spot I like to park in or is sitting in my spot I like to sit in. This hardly seems like the breeding ground for radicals. Maybe just the mere fact that the Church has us observe this man’s nativity has more than enough to speak to us before we would consider the Scripture passages associated with this Mass.
St. John the Baptist was a radical. Are we ready to be radicals? That’s in part why I think our observance of his birth is a bit curious, even comical. Do we realize that a radical is being placed before our eyes to imitate? But here’s the catch: we often misunderstand the term “radical.” We stop at what is visible or superficial and we think that’s what it means to be a radical. St. John lived out in the wilderness. He ate weird stuff. He wore strange clothes. We would wrongly conclude that he is an “out there,” free-range spirit, a radical. That’s not what being a radical means. And it’s not what the Church is placing before us for imitation. Being a radical goes much deeper. That something “deeper” is the real thing we are being encouraged to follow in this observance of St. John’s birth.
I wonder if often we confuse a “revolutionary” for a “radical?” A revolutionary turns things over, turns things on their head, and bucks the system. A radical, on the other hand, might do some revolutionary things, but the far deeper reality of a radical is that he is rooted and has a strong foundation. That’s the core meaning of the term from which we get “radical.” Radical means being rooted. As Catholics, beneficiaries of the radical preaching of St. John the Baptist, we are radicals if we are rooted in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. These are our foundations. It is out of these, or from these, that we must operate to fulfill our calling to be missionary disciples in the modern world. If we are disconnected from, unaware of, or uninterested in Scripture and Tradition then whatever we are doing in the name of Jesus risks having little to do with our roots, and thereby ceases to be radical, and thereby ceases to be of God.
We are to be rooted in Sacred Scripture (which is God’s word in written form) and rooted in Sacred Tradition (which is God’s word passed on in the oral preaching and witness of the apostles). By “rooted” I mean that we are to reach deeply into, and to draw spiritual life and wisdom out of, Scripture and Tradition. Then nourished with such life we stretch forth and go out to be witnesses of Jesus in this world. Like a living thing, we only have life if we remain with the roots. Like a living thing, we grow and stretch out to reach new places beyond our familiar territory. But we can’t be alive and we can’t grow unless we have roots. Jesus himself used this image: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). To be radical, like St. John, is to be rooted in God’s word, which comes to us in the twofold font of Scripture and Tradition.
The society in which we live is marked by upheaval from its own roots. This upheaval seems to be happening at an ever more rapid pace. Societal change in norms and expectations has made us arrive at unbelievable scenarios, scenarios that were unimaginable even just a decade ago. To be a person of radical faith in this environment will likely result in people looking at us as if we really are dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts! People might ask, what are those Catholics breathing and eating? They think Jesus is actually God and that that actually means their personal lives and societal life truly ought to be conformed to God’s moral commands. Are they crazy? Those Catholics think Jesus is not a bygone influence, but that the Scriptures, the Tradition, and the Church continue to speak his teaching with authority. How medieval! They think persons being made in God’s image and likeness imparts a dignity that demands the right to life. They think that sexual love has meaning, that its proper place is actually within the marriage of a man and a woman, that it should not be refused in acts of contraception, and that same-sex activity is not only out of order, but even immoral. They actually think a person’s genetic code, expressed in the physical appearance of the body, is determinate of one’s gender, no matter how surgery might alter that appearance. How unscientific! Those Catholics think that Jesus’ life and power comes to them in sacraments. They think the Mass actually makes Jesus’ sacrifice present such that bread and wine really become Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. What fairy tale magic! What are those Catholics breathing and eating?!
If we are radical, if we have roots, I’ll tell you what we are breathing and eating: we are breathing in the inspiration of God’s word and having been made more worthy by frequent confession we are eating the gift that roots us in deep communion with Jesus himself! By observing the birth of St. John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, we are not being called to be revolutionaries. Rather we are called to be radicals. We are called to be so rooted in our life with Jesus that we have something worth sharing with our world. In fact, we have what Jesus wants to be shared with the world so that men and women are called away from error and sin and brought to true and lasting life in advance of the day of judgment. The devil wants us to sink our roots into the things of this world over which he has some measure of influence because by that he knows he has uprooted us from Christ and neutralized a branch of the vine. A different St. John, St. John the Evangelist, describes it this way: “Do not love the world or the things of the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17). Observing the birth of St. John the Baptist is our call to be rooted in the things of God and to join St. John in a radical proclamation to the world that God is in our midst: “Behold the Lamb of God!”