In the school of John the Baptist
Today is June 24 and the Church invites us to celebrate Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. This solemnity offers us an opportunity to look at the person, the life, and the ministry of Saint John, called the Baptist, and finally draw from him some inspiring thoughts that, perhaps, we may need to shape our lives.
The gospel tells us that the parents were Zachariah and Elizabeth. Earlier in this chapter one of Saint Luke, the gospel says that both parents were advanced in age, therefore the hope of having a child dwindled as they were getting older and older meanwhile Elizabeth was already known as a barren woman. In our African society we are very attentive as soon as a couple, man and woman, starts living together. Women look for signs of pregnancy in the body of the newlywed woman. As long as those signs delay to show up, questions start rising in people’s minds if the woman is productive indeed; meanwhile gossips get spread all around the village that the woman is unproductive. Basically to be known as a barren makes many ladies anxious, thinking all the time what to do in order to get a child. Many of our sisters move from church to church, town to town (I heard there is a man or an old who helps women to get pregnant) or hospital to hospital. There is nothing wrong with consulting a doctor or some herbal practitioners, but let us be careful in discerning where and to whom to go. Zechariah and Elizabeth did the most important thing: to pray to God patiently and, after praying over it for many years, Saint Luke says the angel said to Zechariah: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” Yahoo!!!!!!, I would have exclaimed to express my joy and relief if I were Zachariah.
They called him John. The meaning behind John is God is gracious. Biblical names as in some of our cultures, names speak of the situation in which the child is born. A child born during the harvest of rice will have name whose meaning alludes to rice. When a foreigner will ask the meaning the name, they will tell him/her that this person was born during the harvest of rice. Indeed, our ancestors did not mind about the year the child is born simply because few of them had calendar in their hands. They remembered the time or the period during which the child is born. John means that God is gracious to Elizabeth. God has given her a boy and wiped away her shame of being known as a barren woman. God is gracious to Zachariah he has given him back his voice despite of his doubting God’s might. God remains gracious to each one of us despite our sins he sends the John to prepare the way for the savior.
The naming of John the Baptist tells a lot about the positive or negative impact that a name can have on the person who bears it. Some of our dialects provide us with names that bear bad and shameful connotations. Let us be reminded, dear parents, that name can influence a person positively or negatively. I refrain myself here from pointing out some of them. But let us learn from Zachariah and Elizabeth to choose good names for their children. Name your child or children after some saints, virtues or choose biblical names like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...these patriarchs still have a lot to teach us today. These manes may eventually shape and influence their lives.
The Baptist was John’s other name. We heard in the first reading prophet Isaiah says: “The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name. […] He said to me, you are my servant (Israel) in whom I shall be glorified…” (Isaiah 49: 1-6) Similarly, in the first reading of the Vigil Mass (Jer 1:4-10) God says: “…before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” Angel Gabriel told Zachariah that the son to be born will be great in the sight of the Lord…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit (LK 1: 14-15). The task God called John to do is to prophesy, that is, to speak to the people on behalf of God and eventually to baptize.
This is what we mean when we talk about vocation, that is, something that one is good at and therefore one invests all his effort and energy in it until this particular occupation becomes part of one’s life. The person’s name disappears and people start calling you by the name of your profession or occupation (Job). We hear around: the midwife instead of Beatrice, the carpenter, the headmaster, the principal… Many of us still have hard time to find our own vocation. We look at ourselves through the eyes of others; we measure ourselves up to others and, most of the time, we want to be like others that we forget that God put a particular talent in each of us that each one of us has the duty to find out in order for us to serve God and the society effectively.
John put himself totally to the work of God. He announced the coming of God and showed men and women the proper conduct of the people who fear God. Saint Luke says John turned “many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk 1:16). I pray God to raise people like John the Baptist among us to remind some of our parishioners who schedule group works in their farms on Sundays in this time of planting rice and groundnut that Sunday is special day for us Christians. God gave us five or six days of work and Sunday is the day of prayer and rest. If you go farming on Sunday, you disobey the command of the Lord Jesus who ordered every single Christian to go to the Church and celebrate the Eucharist in order to remember him.
John denounced evil forces that prevented the advent of God and of his kingdom. He was critical toward the temple in Jerusalem and its cult inasmuch as its services were expensive and became a tool in the hands of the aristocracy in order to burden the poor with temple tithes, animal sacrifices and purity laws. Experts surmise that baptizing at the river Jordan, away from the temple, was a way of introducing a new, inexpensive and generally available and effective rite for the forgiveness of all sins for the poor. John was really a man for the poor.
John was also a man for the truth. He denounced Herod Antipas marriage with Herodias, wife of his half-brother, probably for the sake of family dynasty. Meanwhile, gathering people around him at the Jordan, John represented a threat and a permanent challenge to religious and political authorities; therefore, his voice was to be silenced at all cost. Saint Mark tells us that King Herod made him bound and put to prison (Mk 6: 14-29). Experts tell us that it might have been at the fortress of Machaerus where John was finally reduced to silence: beheaded.
John’s life pattern, as Father Richard Rohr puts it, is also his message. Standing aloof of some people or institutions can give us a sharp view of who or what one is observing. Also, resisting bribing and avoiding malicious gift can give us a freedom of mind and speech; at the same time it makes our Christian witness effective. This is what the Lord Jesus said to people had met John the Baptist: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. […]Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist…”