Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. First of all, it’s a saint’s feast day, and saints’ days don’t usually take precedence over a Sunday celebration. Secondly, whenever we do celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth. But today we do gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth and his day at all on this Sunday points to the fact that St. John the Baptist had a very special role to play in the life of Christ. In fact, the only other saint for whom we celebrate a birthday is the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that tells us something about how important John the Baptist is.
Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feast of their Nativities – their births – was a tradition developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant. Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, mostly to counteract pagan festivals of the coming of winter. John the Baptist’s birthday was then placed around the time of the summer solstice for similar reasons. But there’s more to it even than that. In the Gospel of John, there is a passage where John the Baptist says of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease, he must increase.” So John’s birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become shorter, and Jesus’ birthday is placed at the time when the days start to become longer. John the Baptist must decrease, Jesus must increase.
Today’s readings have a lot to do with who the prophet is. St. John the Baptist was the last prophet of the old order, and his mission was to herald the coming of Jesus Christ who is himself the new order. Tradition holds that prophets were created for their mission, that their purpose was laid out while they were yet to be born. Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the old order, tells us of his commissioning in our first reading today. He says, “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” The rest of the reading tells us of his mission, a mission of hardship, but one of being compelled to speak the word of god as a sharp-edged sword. His calling began as a call to preach to his own people, but by the end of the reading, it is clear that that commission became a call to preach to every nation on earth.
Isaiah says that he was given his name while in his mother’s womb. The same was true of St. John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. There’s a dubious story in my own family’s history that my mother had my name picked out from the time she was twelve. But it’s pretty hard for me to believe that a young Italian woman would have picked the name Patrick Michael for her son. But that’s how the story goes. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. I looked mine up this week and found that Patrick means “nobleman,” so if you feel like bowing when you see me, it seems like that would be appropriate! But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “Yahweh is salvation,” which pretty much encompassed the meaning of Isaiah’s mission, proclaiming salvation to the Israelites who were oppressed in exile. The name given to the Baptist, John, means “God has shown favor.” And that was in fact the message of his life. He came to pave the way for Jesus Christ, who was the favor of God shown to the whole human race.
The point is, these men were created for their prophetic calling. That’s true for us too. All of us who have been baptized have a prophetic calling that came before we were ever born. God created us for something special. He created us to be with him, he created us to follow him, he created us to draw other people to him. This means that, according to our abilities, our vocation and station in life, we were meant to serve God in some way that God might be glorified and that others may come to know him.
During these couple of weeks, we have been asked to observe a fortnight of religious freedom. As our nation’s bishops point out, religious freedom is one of our first and most cherished freedoms. It was largely in pursuit of religious freedom that our nation’s forefathers came to this great land, and in defense of that freedom that they fought and died. But now, many issues have put that freedom in danger. The so-called HHS mandate is kind of the banner issue on the religious freedom front. The HHS mandate requires all employers to pay for birth control regardless of whether it is against their moral teachings, as it is for us.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another sad assault on religious freedom has been the requirement of any adoption placement agency to place children for adoption with people in same-sex unions. Since our religion forbids this practice, we have been unable to comply, and so we have been pushed out of the adoption process, something that has been an extension of our acts of charity since this country began.
The essence of the issue is that freedom of religion is now being defined in a very narrow way, which amounts to freedom of worship. One is free to worship in any way one chooses, but must obey the law in all other things. Let’s bracket for the moment the obvious objection that such a narrow definition was never intended by our founding fathers. More important is that, for us, worship is not something we can separate from our daily living. When we are sent out to “go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life,” we are just beginning to worship. What we do in our daily life is our real worship, not just the hour we’re here on Sunday.
So our worship of God may indeed call us to speak against issues of the day, or to take in an adoptive or foster child to share God’s love, or any number of charitable acts, and our Church should have the freedom to pursue those according to our moral teachings. That’s the essence of religious freedom, and that is what we are seeking to defend. The prophetic call in all of us absolutely must speak up for what we believe as a Church and preach the Gospel by the way that we live our lives.
We live in a society that is all about protecting and promoting ourselves. Saint John the Baptist would have us promote Jesus instead. That’s what he was about. As it was for him, so it is for us: we must decrease, Jesus must increase.