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Commentary to the Celebration of the Birth of John the Baptist

Fr Joseph Pellegrino SJ - Fri, Jun 22nd 2012


Nativity of John the Baptist: The Exigency to Prophesy


Today we leave the rotation of the Sundays of the Year for a celebration of the Calendar Feast Day: the celebration of the Birth of John the Baptist.  This feast is put near the first day of summer, because, in the Northern Hemisphere, the days will now begin to grow shorter.  John the Baptist proclaimed that he must decrease and the Lord must increase.


I want to begin today with a brief look at the Book of the Prophet Malachi.  Malachi is the last of the minor prophets, minor not in stature but in length.  Using the medieval division of the books into chapter and verse, the major prophetic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are 66, 52, and 48 chapters.  The longest of the twelve books of the minor prophets are Hosea and Zacharia, 14 chapters.  The other ten  are 3 to 5 chapters.  Malachi is always put at the end of the list of minor prophets because it has a dramatic ending: “Behold I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” and  "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.”


Elijah was the greatest, most powerful of the ancient prophets.  The one who would come to prepare the way, would come in the power of Elijah.


This one is John the Baptist, a central figure in the introduction of the Messiah to the world.  John’s preaching and pointing to the Lord preface Jesus’ earthly ministry in all four Gospels.  In the Gospel of Luke, John’s birth is recorded in the style of the births of Sampson and Samuel.  It is a preface to the birth of Jesus.  Something  momentous was taking place.  The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was becoming man.  This was the central event of mankind’s history.  The one who would announce the Lord, whose life was foretold in the Book of Malachi, John the Baptist, would be the greatest of the prophets in the Old Testament tradition and the first of the prophets in the New Testament.  His birth would also be recorded and celebrated as we do today.


John the Baptist was a prophet.  We use that term prophet rather loosely to refer to anyone who has made an educated guess or simply a good guess about the future.  Sports figures and reporters are called prophets when they correctly predict the outcome of a game or match.  Political hacks are called prophets when an election turns out as they expected. 


In Sacred Scripture, prophecy is much more than that.  In scripture prophecy refers the proclamation of the Truth of God.  This Truth is timeless because God is timeless.  The prophecy might not always refer to the future.  For example, John the Baptist, was being prophetic when he pointed to Jesus and said, “There is the Lamb of God.” John the Baptist was also being prophetic when he told Herod that the king was a sinner.  That was the truth, and John lost his head for proclaiming it.


“The time will come to pass that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” That is from the prophet Joel.  That time is now.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us since Pentecost.  We are called, like John, to prophesy, in the full meaning of the term prophet.  We are called to proclaim the Truth of God.


Truth is not necessarily something that people want to hear.  On Friday we celebrated the feast of the martyrs John Fischer and Thomas More.  Both opposed the King of England, Henry VIII, in his declaration that he was the Supreme Head of the Church.  He did not want to hear that he was committing adultery by marrying Anne Boelyn.  He demanded that all the bishops and nobles sign the Act of Supremacy, declaring that the King had complete authority over the Church.  Archbishop John Fischer and Sir Thomas More refused.   Even after they were imprisoned, Fischer and More’s very existence irritated the King.  These martyrs died because they were prophets, committed to the Truth of God.


There are times that I have had to tell people that their lifestyle is detrimental to their future.  I can assure you that they don’t want to hear it.  I have told many people that for them, this or that leads to deep problems.  They don’t want to hear it.  I have had young couples leave my office quite upset because I told them that there is a considerable increase in the percentage of unsuccessful marriages for those who cohabitate.  They would rather that I lie to them, or make believe that I don’t know the truth.  No, we are called to proclaim the Truth, even if it is unpopular.


I am sure everyone here has gotten into a squabble or two or ten with family members when you mention that a particular lifestyle isn’t proper.  Certainly, if you ever told your children that something which is the other kids are doing is wrong, you have had a fight on your hands. Good parents put up the good fight.  And, in the long run, the Truth always wins.


When John was born, his father Zechariah, his voice restored, proclaimed a great truth, “You, my child, shall be called the Prophet of the Most High.”  The song, or Canticle of Zechariah, is prayed every day by the entire Church as part of the Morning Prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office.  This prayer reminds us both of the central event of mankind, the Christ Event, and of our call to join John in proclaiming the Truth.  For when we proclaim the Truth, we proclaim Jesus Christ.

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