Sunday June 24, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of Saint John the Baptist
Reading I (Isaiah 49:1-6) Reading II (Acts 13:22-26 )
Gospel (St. Luke 1:57-66, 80)
Today we celebrate in the Church a wonderful event: the birth of a child. When we think about the way things operate in our own lives, the day of one's birth is a very important day. We celebrate it with great joy. We invite friends over when the kids are young, we have parties for their birthday and all the other stuff that goes along with the birthday celebration. But in the Church, the celebration of a birth is a very rare thing. There are only three persons whose birthday we celebrate: Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Saint John the Baptist. These are the three people who were born without Original Sin. Their births were extraordinary; consequently, the Church celebrates these three births in a very special way. For nearly all of the saints, we celebrate their birth into Heaven. For instance, on a martyr's feast day it is usually the day on which the martyr was killed. We celebrate the day the saint died or the day the saint's bones were moved, but we do not celebrate their birthday.
But today, we celebrate the feast of Saint John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, "He is the greatest man born of woman." Why would Jesus say that, especially when you consider that He Himself, who is God and man, was born of woman? The point He was trying to make is that of all the others, Himself excluded, there is none who is greater than John the Baptist. The reason for that is because he alone was born without Original Sin.
Now there are some distinctions that have to be made because, obviously, Jesus did not have Original Sin. Jesus is God and also man. Our Lady did not have Original Sin. In fact, from the first moment of her conception there was no sin. That is why hers is called the Immaculate Conception because it means no stain from the very moment of her conception. Saint John the Baptist, however, was conceived with Original Sin. He was conceived just like the rest of us. He had Original Sin, which was passed down from his father Zechariah to himself. But at the moment that Our Lady came to visit Elizabeth (remember the moment that John leapt in his mother's womb for joy), Original Sin was removed from his soul. So when the moment came for his birth, there was no sin upon his soul.
We see, in the second reading, the events that surrounded the birth of John the Baptist. We hear about the fact that his parents were going to call him John instead of Zechariah, we hear that the people celebrated because God had shown His mercy to Elizabeth. The name John, "Joannem" in Hebrew, means "God is gracious." God had extended His grace and mercy to Elizabeth. In this child, the grace of God was going to be seen in an extraordinary way. Indeed, because it was John who inaugurated the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin; so that grace could once again be flowing in the lives of the people; so that he could set up the stage for Jesus to be able to come into the world. When the people asked him, "Who are you?" - he would say, "Who you suppose me to be, I am not."
But the question is "Who was he?" That was the question people asked from the moment of his birth. "What will this child be?" Yet we see it foreshadowed in his own father. Remember that Zechariah did not believe the angel Gabriel when he came to announce John's birth to Zechariah when he was offering incense to God at the altar of sacrifice. Because he did not believe, the angel announced to Zechariah that Zechariah would have no voice until the moment the child would be born. At the very moment the child was to be circumcised, Zechariah finally made an act of faith and wrote: "His name is John." Then his tongue was loosed and he spoke, this was a foreshadowing of what the child would be.
In one of his homilies, Saint Augustine talked about the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus. The people thought that, maybe, he was the Messiah. But John himself said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the desert." What we hear in the readings today is the exact same thing. "He is the voice, but Jesus is the Word," Saint Augustine says. The voice speaks the Word. At the moment that Saint John the Baptist was beheaded, the voice went silent but the Word remained.
It is just like any of us, if you consider it. When we have a conversation, a person may say something that gets etched into your memory and the word remains with you, but the voice is silent. When you replay the conversation in your mind, you do not hear the voice of the individual, but you can replay the words. So, John's voice went silent.
And it was not just John's voice, it was The Voice that went silent. The Word remained. The Word had been etched into the hearts and minds of the people. The Word is eternal. The Word was spoken by God and the Word was reiterated by John. And that Word has been spoken by the saints and prophets throughout history. That Word continues to be preached by the Church. The Word remains, but the voice is only temporary. Whether it is the voice of Saint John the Baptist, the voice of the various saints, the voice of a priest or a preacher preaching today, or your voice when you talk to another person about Jesus, the voice is temporary but the Word remains. So John's voice was there only for a time. It was there to prepare the hearts of the people, to prepare the way for the Lord. We need to listen, not for his voice, but for the Word that he spoke. The Word is Jesus Christ. The Word must remain in our hearts and in our minds. The Word must be at the very center of our lives.
This birth we celebrate today of John the Baptist also calls each one of us to look at our own lives, to look at what we hold out to be important in the way we live. In the first reading today, we hear the Church placing before us the words of the prophet Isaiah. God says, through Isaiah, "You have made me a two-edged sword and hid me in the shadow of Your arm. You have made me a polished arrow but hid me in Your quiver." Here we have a sword, that if somebody who made swords were to make this, they would say, "This is my pride and joy. This is the greatest sword that I have made." God concealed it in the shadow of His arm. He made him a polished arrow, not just an ordinary one, but a fancy arrow; and then hid him in the quiver. He sent him out into the desert, he dressed in camel's hair, and he ate grasshoppers and wild honey out in the desert. He was not like other men.
Sirach (when he talks about the various patriarchs, saints, and prophets of old) says, "The world was not worthy of them." Certainly we can say the same of Saint John the Baptist. The world was not worthy of this man who was the "greatest man born of woman." And yet, he was rejected, misunderstood, and judged according to his appearance. Imagine what a man who lived out in the desert would look like. He lived down by the Dead Sea, the hottest place on earth, the lowest spot on the face of the earth. He lived out there where very little grows, he did not wear ordinary clothes, and he did not eat ordinary food. You can imagine the roughness in the way he would have appeared. What would we say about that? If a man came walking down the street past your house, wearing camel's hair, unshaven, perhaps unbathed, imagine what he would look like. We would call the psychiatrist and suggest that this man needs help. Jesus called him "the greatest man ever born of woman." When you look at the lives of any of the saints, they are not like others. But this man was not even like the other saints. He was truly extraordinary. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets and he was the first of the New Testament saints. He was the one who laid the foundation.
So we look to Saint John the Baptist and celebrate his birth today because he truly is not like others. We need to learn from that. God wants each one of us to be saints, as well. For each one of us, the day of our birth was an extraordinary day. If you have any doubt, just ask your mother. Your birth was extraordinary. Maybe it was not like Saint John the Baptist, maybe it was not accompanied by signs and wonders so that everyone wonders about what is going on, maybe you were not born of a woman in her 60's who was sterile up to that point; but nonetheless, every birth is a miracle. Every child is extraordinary and God wants every one of us to be a saint. He wants every one of us to be a voice that speaks His Word. We need to learn from John the Baptist that we do not need to be like everyone else. We need to be what God wants us to be.
We should not base our judgments on what the world holds up to be ordinary. Just think about it. If we made judgments based on what our society says is normal, we would say that people who have tattoos all over their bodies; pins stuck all over their heads, faces, and bodies; things in their mouths, ears, belly-buttons and everywhere else; wearing all kinds of odd things; hair in three different colors; we would say, "Look at that normal teenage kid, isn't that great!" Then we look at Saint John the Baptist and say, "He is nuts!" We have things a little bit mixed up in our society. It is about time that we say, "Society has it wrong, God has it right."
We need to be able to ask God: "What do You want of me?" Like John the Baptist, God will hide us away until the day of our manifestation. He hides us so He can form us, so He can prepare us to do the work He has in mind for each one of us. Then, when the time is right, He will put us where He needs us so that we can do His Will, so that we can be His voice, so that we can speak His Word. As we consider this wonderful feast of the Birth of the Voice, of the birth of the greatest man born of woman, the Birth of John the Baptist, we each need to ask the same question of ourselves that all the people of the time of John the Baptist asked. We need to sit before the Blessed Sacrament and we need to ask God: "What is this child to be? What do You want of me?"
Note: Father Altier does not write his homilies in advance, but relies solely upon the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.