A word on St. John the Baptist
Homily: Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

What I thought I'd do for this feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is make a few points on the basis of three significant events in the New Testament having to do with this great saint. The first event is the reaction of John in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth; the child leapt for joy in Elizabeth's womb upon hearing Mary's greeting.

There is so much meaning packed into this brief event; John reacts to the presence of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit upon receiving Mary's greeting, and John reacts to the sound of her voice. Imagine how many others in Egypt were filled with the Holy Spirit, without really understanding the significance of what was happening to them, as a result of simply being in the presence of Mary when she was in Egypt with Joseph. This is important to think about, because so many people are under the impression that in order to really witness to Christ, you have to "preach" to people and convince them of the truth of certain propositions and even convert them to your "religion". But Mary simply greeted Elizabeth and as a result her cousin was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the reason is that Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit, for she had just conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what happened to Elizabeth affected the child in her womb.

We human beings are not isolated individuals; we influence one another in ways we are often completely unaware of. As a teacher, I have to continue to remind myself of this, because we can get so caught up in what we teach, in the curriculum, as if the knowledge we impart to our students is the most important thing in the world. The fact is our students will forget most of it, but students do not forget who were to them. As a parent, or a teacher, a priest, whatever it is we do, the most important and most fundamental thing we can do is to pray often and grow in the Holy Spirit, to be increasingly filled with the Holy Spirit, and that very fact will influence others subconsciously.

The next event in the life of John the Baptist occurs later, when he is baptizing in the Jordan. The gospel of Matthew tells us that John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. In other words, he lived a life of austerity, like the prophet Elijah who also wore a haircloth and a belt around his waist. And Jesus referred to John as the greatest prophet: "…truly I tell you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist".

John was called by God from the womb, as it was the case for Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." If this is true for the prophet Jeremiah, how much more for John, the new Elijah who reacted in the womb to Mary's greeting. There is no doubt these events underscore the evil of abortion. What this shows is that abortion is more than the destruction of a developing human life; it is the destruction of a mission, one that is bound to influence countless others and affect the world in ways that we cannot begin to imagine. Just think of how many people you have influenced in your own life; you and I are only aware of a fraction of it, and part of the joy of heaven will be to see just how many people have been influenced by our life and character. The destruction of one irreplaceable mission is impossible to comprehend in all its details, but imagine 56 million unborn children every year, called by God from the womb, destroyed by abortion. We really are at war; and it is a spiritual war, without any doubt.

John the Baptist's penitential life is very important. I find it amazing that I have to explicitly teach senior grade twelve students the difference between reason and emotion and that a humanly good life is guided not by emotion (i.e., the passions), but by reason, and that to allow yourself to be governed by your passions is to live like brutes. This is a real revelation to them; and these are very bright kids who study calculus, physics, and who are going on to study engineering, etc. And what is obvious to anyone who drives a car is how impulsive so many people are these days; so many people have little control over their passions and impulses - so many adults, that is. They drive dangerously because they are impatient, they cannot tolerate any kind of delay of gratification. This is especially evident on bright and sunny days. As a culture, we don't teach this anymore; on the contrary, we counsel our youth to do what they're passionate about - to follow their passions, their dreams. The only students I have who live penitential lives are my Muslim students, who have just finished a rigorous one month fast for Ramadan, and they were faithful; they ate nothing from sun up to sun down. It is for this reason that they have a profound interest for things spiritual, moral, and intellectual, and very little interest in the sensual.

It is a spiritually healthy thing to practice some sort of penance or sacrifice every day, because our greatest enemy is a disordered love of self, and that love of self is insidious. It is subtle, and it destroys the moral and spiritual life, and this life is a preparation for eternal life, as John's life was a preparation for the Messiah. The only way to keep that love of self from becoming the monster that will destroy our moral and spiritual life is to practice, every day, some kind of penance, some kind of sacrifice. The more we conquer this disordered love, the greater will be our awareness of God's presence at the deepest level of the self and what His will for us really is. Like Elijah on the mountain, the more sensitive will we be to the gentle breeze that brushes across our face, so to speak, which he sensed was the presence of God.

And finally, John speaks out against Herod, who married his brother's wife Herodias - she left her husband to marry Herod. This was contrary to the Mosaic Law, which forbids the union of a man with his brother's wife while the brother is still living. John publically disgraced them by speaking out against their union, and he was put to death for doing so. John loved the law of God more than he loved his own life.

I have always been struck by John's tremendous courage. He reminds me of the prophet Nathan, who confronted David for his sin of taking Bathsheba as his wife, after having her husband moved to the front lines of battle so that he would be killed. Nathan stood before the king and called him on it; that took tremendous courage.

But this is precisely what is missing today in the world: courageous leadership; prophets with guts. It seems everyone is capitulating to the pressures of political activists, especially university administrators; very few want to speak their minds for fear of reprisal. No one wants to stand out and risk being ridiculed or risk a loss of revenues. But John spoke out against a marriage, an unlawful one. And such a thing is very much worth speaking out against, because marriage is the most fundamental institution: the family is the basic unit of society, and it is here where human beings are most profoundly influenced. The most basic human need is to be loved, to know that you are loved, and the two most important people in a child's life is his or her mother and father. When that relationship interrupted, the children of that marriage are profoundly affected. Children think egocentrically, which is natural for a child. This means that if daddy left me, then it is only because there is something wrong with me. Children idealize their parents - their parents are gods, they cannot do wrong. So, the child always blames himself or herself for any kind of abuse, or neglect, or marriage break up, and the child will internalize this, and these scars last a lifetime. Marriage is so important that it is the model used in Scripture to illustrate the relationship between God and Israel, and in the New Testament, Jesus and his Church: Christ the Bridegroom, and the Church as his Bride.

And so, at the beginning of John's life is a message about the sanctuary of the womb, and at the end of his life is a message about the sacredness of marriage. Between these two points, John's life is a message about this life as a preparation for eternal life, and we prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his path in our own life not by indulging in the pleasures of this world, but by prayer and penance and faithfully carrying out the mission that was given to us from God before he formed us in the womb.