John the Baptist was singled out for greatness

  • June 14, 2007
The Birth of John the Baptist (Year C) June 24 (Isaiah 49:1-6/Acts 13:22-26/Luke 1:57-66, 80)

What will this child become? That question probably crosses the minds of many as they gaze into the faces of infants.
{sidebar id=2}Baby photographs of the famous and infamous sometimes give hints of the character to come, but often the hint is obvious only in hindsight. Mercifully, we are not to know until much later. All children enter this world with a chance at succeeding, and here success is measured in terms of being human beings who are decent and compassionate. Many succeed in solid but unspectacular ways. Some are sidetracked by circumstances and choices. A few, unfortunately, join the ranks of humanity’s hall of shame: tyrants, murderers and apostles of hate and division.

And then there are those few who are called to do spectacular deeds for God and humanity. Saints, prophets, reformers and inspiring leaders are numbered among this blessed group. Being a prophet is a rather thankless and even dangerous task. A prophet’s job is to admonish, challenge, encourage and inspire hope. People are seldom grateful and often react in negative and violent ways. And yet it is one of the most important tasks imaginable.

God asks rhetorically if the mission He assigns the prophet is a small and insignificant thing, and it clearly is not. The prophet’s job is to restore Israel to God and prepare them for a more universal mission: light to the gentiles. It is a mission that God has imprinted on the prophet’s soul from the moment of his creation. It is the reason he has come into the world, and he will probably have no peace until he surrenders to that call. Our own life’s mission is perhaps not as dramatic as Isaiah’s but no less important. Nothing that God asks of us is insignificant or valueless, even if it escapes the world’s immediate notice.

Ask anyone what the role of John the Baptist was and they will probably reply “To prepare the way for Jesus.” The evangelists have done their job well, for that is how they wanted to portray him. To the first-century folks, the answer was a lot more ambiguous. After all, John was a powerful and holy man of God. He baptized many people, including Jesus, and he had many disciples. The Gospels bear witness to a bit of tension and rivalry between the disciples of Jesus and those of John. The Messianic status of Jesus and the supporting role of John the Baptist took years to develop and take hold, and for many years some still followed John.

All four of the evangelists clarify the role of John in their own way. Luke depicts his birth as truly miraculous, an intervention by God. It was even accompanied by an angelic sign and was the cause of much holy fear in the community. Being given a name not normally associated with his family is one indication of his special status. Clearly John is singled out to do great and wonderful things for God and Israel. But the birth of Jesus is even more miraculous, and his titles more exalted. He is slated for a far greater role than John.

There does not seem to have been tension or competition between Jesus and John themselves, for John recognizes and accepts — even embraces — his preparatory role. They will not allow themselves to be played off against each other, for both have the same basic mission and both are serving God; there is no room for egos.

In the omitted canticle, Zechariah describes John’s role by praising the God of Israel for the fulfilment of God’s promises. These promises include freedom, liberation from fear and oppression and the mission of light to a world in darkness. John’s role and mission is our own writ large: bringing about a change of heart in the people so that they will be able to accept the message of Jesus. This includes instilling hope and anticipation of God’s salvation and His compassion towards all.

Much of the world’s misery is caused by the clash of insecure and fearful egos and the inability to forget self and work for the common good and the well-being of others. Each day we have at least one opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord, let us hope and pray that we do not waste it.