The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Today’s readings 

Today we celebrate a feast that is a bit unusual for us. When we celebrate a saint’s day, it is usually celebrated on the feast of their death, not their birth. But today we gather to celebrate the birth of a saint, Saint John the Baptist, and the fact that we’re celebrating his birth 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.

Just as for Jesus, we don’t know the precise day John the Baptist was born. So the feasts of their Nativities – their births – were traditions developed by the early Church. The dates the Church selected are significant. Jesus’ birthday was placed around the time of the winter solstice, some of which was 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. Saint Augustine reminds us 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. Saint 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 Saint John the Baptist, whose name was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth by the Angel Gabriel. Names have meaning. Maybe you know what your name means. But far more significant are the names of the prophets we encounter in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Isaiah means “The LORD 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.

Ultimately, the purpose for Saint John the Baptist’s life was summed up in his statement: “I must decrease, He must increase.” And so it must be for us. Sometimes we want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, at least unconsciously, when that is, of course, exactly where it should not be. For John the Baptist, the spotlight was always on Christ, the One whose sandals he was unfit to fasten. Just as the birth of Saint John the Baptist helped his father Zechariah to speak once again, so his life gives voice to our own purpose in the world. Like Saint John the Baptist, we are called to be a people who point to Christ, who herald the Good News, and who live our lives for God. We are called to decrease, while Christ increases in all of us. We are called to be that light to the nations of which Isaiah speaks today, so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Saint John the Baptist, pray for us.

Saint Anthony of Padua, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Today’s readings

I think I can always remember my mother, and my grandmothers, praying to St. Anthony anytime something was lost. There’s even the popular little prayer, “Tony, Tony, please come ’round, something’s lost and must be found.” This everyday need to find lost objects has made St. Anthony one of the most popular saints.

But the real story of St. Anthony meshes very well with the challenge of today’s Gospel reading, that we would be salt and light for the earth.  The gospel call to leave everything and follow Christ was the rule of Anthony’s life. Over and over again God called him to something new in his plan. Every time Anthony responded with renewed zeal and self-sacrificing to serve his Lord Jesus more completely. His journey as the servant of God began as a very young man when he decided to join the Augustinians, giving up a future of wealth and power to follow God’s plan for his life. Later, when the bodies of the first Franciscan martyrs went through the Portuguese city where he was stationed, he was again filled with an intense longing to be one of those closest to Jesus himself: those who die for the Good News.

So Anthony entered the Franciscan Order and set out to preach to the Moors – a pretty dangerous thing to do. But an illness prevented him from achieving that goal. He went to Italy and was stationed in a small hermitage where he spent most of his time praying, reading the Scriptures and doing menial tasks.

But that was not the end for Anthony’s dream of following God’s call. Recognized as a great man of prayer and a great Scripture and theology scholar, Anthony became the first friar to teach theology to the other friars. Soon he was called from that post to preach to heretics, to use his profound knowledge of Scripture and theology to convert and reassure those who had been misled.

Through the intercession and example of St. Anthony, may we all find the courage to be salt and light for a world that has in many ways grown bland and dark.  Following our own call to holiness, we can help people find Christ, as Saint Anthony always longed to do.

Saint Boniface, bishop and martyr

Today’s readings 

St. Boniface was sent by Pope Gregory II to reform the Church in Germany, which had been heavily negatively influenced by the forces of paganism. He sought to restore the fidelity of the German clergy to their bishops, in union with Rome. He also sought to build up houses of prayer throughout the region, in the form of Benedictine monasteries. While he had much success, in the Frankish kingdom, he met great problems because of lay interference in bishops’ elections, the worldliness of the clergy and lack of papal control. During a final mission to the Frisians, he and 53 companions were massacred while he was preparing converts for Confirmation. St. Boniface has been called the apostle to Germany.

One of the great problems in the German Church at Boniface’s time was the worldliness of the clergy. The caution against getting too caught up in the things of this world is well-taken for all of us. Jesus said as much in today’s Gospel reading. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but do not withhold from God the things that are of God. Namely, we owe God our worship and faithfulness, and a spirit of prayerfulness that should imbue everything that we do.

That sense of prayerfulness inspired Tobit to take care of the dead, against the orders of the government. That was a value for him as a Jew, and it seems second nature for us, since it is a corporal act of mercy. But the government was trying to squash the Jewish way of life, so that’s what is at stake here. We will see Tobit’s story play out in the first reading all this week.

May the spirit of St. Boniface’s efforts to reform the Church keep us all from being caught up in anything that is not of God, and may a spirit of prayerfulness pervade our thoughts, words, and actions this day and always.

Saint Justin

Today’s readings 

The greatest men and women who have ever lived have followed the example of our Lord Jesus Christ in that they have been willing to give their lives for the truth, for what they believed in, for what is right. In our first reading, Saint Paul is on trial for preaching Christ and bearing witness to the truth. He is only saved by playing on the rivalry between the Pharisees and Saducees.

For Saint Justin, whose feast we celebrate today, he also chose to stand up for the truth. He was born a pagan, and spent a good deal of his youth studying pagan philosophy, principally that of Plato. But he eventually found that Christianity answered the great questions of life and existence better than did the pagan philosophers, so he converted. He wrote famous apologies, defenses of the Christian faith, to the Roman emperor and to the senate. Because of his unwavering dedication to his faith, he was beheaded in Rome in the year 165.

In the Gospel reading, Jesús prays for Paul and Justin and all of us. Because we are all called to live our faith with conviction, as did Saints Paul and Justin. We might never be in the dire straits in which they found themselves, but we too are called to give our lives, our comforts, our standing in the community, our reputation among our peers, for the faith. Today we pray for the grace to live what we believe and to be an everlasting remembrance.

Saint Athanasius

You surely recognize these beautiful words:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.

These words emphasize the divinity of Christ, an essential truth of our faith.  The Liturgy also says: “Through the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”  The Gospels show us time and time again that Jesus came to proclaim his divinity, his oneness with the Father, so as to be the means of salvation.  Almost all of his hearers rejected this message, except for all but one of his disciples, and the centurion who noticed that he was the Son of God as he hung dead on the Cross.

The Arians, led by the priest Arius in the third century, also rejected that message – they did not believe in Jesus’ divinity.  They believed there was a time before Jesus existed, that he was not consubstantial with the Father, but rather was created by the Father.  This position denies the divinity of Christ, which is an unacceptable position for our faith.  If Christ is not divine, he has no power to save us, and we are still dead in our sins.  God forbid! – And he does forbid it!

St. Athanasius was a great champion of the faith against the harmful teachings of Arius.  But it was a hard battle.  He was exiled not once but actually five times during the fight against Arius’s teachings.  His writings are almost all a great defense of the faith and are so sound that Athanasius was named a Doctor of the Church.

We have St. Athanasius to thank for the wonderful words of our Creed.  We often say them, I think, without a whole lot of thought.  But we need to remember when we pray the Creed that each of those words was the result of dedicated work, intensive prayer, and hard fought defense against heresy.  Because of people like St. Athanasius, we may indeed come to share in the divinity of Christ.

Saint Joseph the Worker

In his encyclical, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II said, echoing the sentiments of the Second Vatican Council, “The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that humankind, created in the image of God, shares by their work in the activity of the Creator and that, within the limits of their own human capabilities, they in a sense continue to develop that activity, and perfect it as they advance further and further in the discovery of the resources and values contained in the whole of creation.” (25)

The Christian idea of work is that through the toil of work, the Christian joins her or himself to the cross of Christ, and through the effects of work, the Christian participates in the creative activity of our Creator God. Today we celebrate the feast day for all Christian workers, the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. This feast recalls that Jesus himself was a worker, schooled in the drudgeries and the joys of the vocation of carpentry by his father, St. Joseph, who worked hard, as many do today, to support his family. 

In today’s first reading, Saint Paul, newly Christian, works hard at the task of proclaiming the Gospel. But we also know that, in order not to be a burden to those to whom he was preaching, and thus not to be an obstacle to their faith, he worked at the trade of tentmaking. In other places, St. Paul elevates human labor to a virtue, demanding that those who do not work should not eat, and decrying the inactivity of those who are idle, and busybodies. If work is a share in the activity of the creator and a share in the cross of Christ, woe to those who turn away from it!

Sometimes, it is true, work is far from blessed. There is, of course, a responsibility of the employer to provide a workplace that upholds human dignity. But often work seems less than redemptive. To that, Pope John Paul said, “Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves in the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do. This work of salvation came about through suffering and death on a Cross. By enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, humankind in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity. They show themselves true disciples of Christ by carrying the cross in their turn every day in the activity that they are called upon to perform.” (Laborem Exercens, 27) 

And so we all forge ahead in our daily work, whether that be as a carpenter, a tentmaker, a homemaker, a mother or father, a laborer, a white collar worker, a consecrated religious or ordained person, or whatever it may be. We forge ahead with the joy of bringing all the world to redemption through creation, through the cross and Resurrection of Christ, and through our daily work. 

Saint Mark, Evangelist

Today’s readings

We aren’t completely sure who St. Mark was.  He might have been the first bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.  Some scholars say he might have been the one described in chapter 14 of Mark’s Gospel, at the arrest of Jesus: “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.”  But others question whether he ever saw Jesus in person at all.  We know that he was a companion of Peter and Paul in the missionary journeys, and that he was the first to write about Jesus’ life.  It is estimated that the Gospel of Mark was written around 60 or 70 AD, after the death of both Peter and Paul.  As you might expect since this was the first Gospel written, it is used as a source for both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.

Whoever Mark really was, I think the key idea for this feast today is that he was one who willingly embodied the command of Jesus that we have in today’s Gospel reading: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”  His missionary work, and his work as the Evangelist testify to his passion for the Gospel and his efforts to see that the whole world came to believe in Jesus.

What we celebrate on his feast day, though, is that the work of that command is far from complete.  There is so much of the world that has yet to hear of Jesus.  Some of them are in far off lands, others are in our workplaces, schools, and communities.  Because of that, it is imperative that we all continue the work of Mark and the other Evangelists.  We are the ones who have to testify to the Gospel in word and in deed, witnessing to what we believe in everything that we say and do.  Our life’s work is not complete until we are sure that those who know us also know the Lord in and through us.

“The favors of the LORD I will sing forever;” the Psalmist says today, “through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.”  May we, like St. Mark, sing of the Lord’s goodness in every moment of our lives.