WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?: A HOMILY ON THE SOLEMNITY OF THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST BY FR. IFEANYICHUKWU HENRY NWOKORO CSsR, KIRKWOOD, D & ADDO
Usually, in the Catholic Church, we do not celebrate the birthday of people who are no longer in this world. Even when the Church celebrates the feast days of saints, they are celebrated on the date on which the saint died. In order words, their death from this life is their birth into eternal life. However, there are three exceptions to this rule, namely, Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist. The joke is that John the Baptist is not a Baptist, namely he doesnt belong to the Baptist Church.
Why is such exception granted to these three persons? It is because each of them stand at a very significant position in our salvation history. These are the three most important figures in terms of our salvation. It is not a problem understanding how significant Jesus is. He is God made man, who will die to set us free. On the other hand, his birth would not have been possible without the consent of Mary. How about John the Baptist? John the Baptist is like a bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He is not Jesus, but like a bridge, he is that one who makes it possible for us to get to Jesus.
THE BRIDGE TO JESUS
In those days : Paul said, “ God raised up David to be our fathers’ king; of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David , the son of Jesse, a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming John has preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ “Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God, to us had been sent the message of this salvation.”: John was the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, who were both of priestly origins. Elizabeth was descended from the tribe of Aaron, which is a priestly family. Zachariah was one of the temple priests. John, being the son of a priest, could have followed his father’s footstepts to remain in the temple in Jerusalem. But John deviates from that. He is found, preaching a message of repentance, in the wilderness, away from the temple in Jerusalem. He may have done this in opposition to all the corruption that was taking place in the temple. However, he was to introduce us to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ our saviour. He declares that he is not the one to save us. He declares, like a bridge, that Jesus must increase while he decreases. This is what makes John the Baptist very significant. He is the last of the prophets and he was to introduce us to our saviour, Jesus Christ. Though he is from a priestly family, he moves away from the Jerusalem priesthood, in order to introduce us to Jesus, the great high prest. John becomes the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He belonged to the Old Testament, yet he points us to the New Testament. This is why his birth is so important. John preaches a message to the people and baptizes them in order to bring them to repentance and to prepare them for Christ. He takes them to the river Jordan, to recall the story of the exodus from Egypt. In a sense, he helped them to see how Jesus is a fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan to lead us out of slavery into freedom. John is like a bridge and just like a bridge, it is easy to think it is not important. But without the bridge how do we cross over? The transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament would not have been possible without John the Baptist. This is why we celebrate his birth. He was born to ursher us into a new era in our salvation history, the birth of our saviour.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES JOHN MAKE
Listen to me, O Islands, and pay attention, you people from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.” And now the Lord says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength-he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.: This prophesy of Isaiah can be linked to Jesus, but it is more appropriately linked to John the Baptist. First, we have the image of the womb. True Jesus was named from his mother’s womb. But the womb is very important when we speak about John the Baptist, because he was the one who met Jesus even while he was in the womb and he leapt for Joy. This leap of Joy can be compared to how David danced when the Ark of the Covenant was being brought into the temple of Jerusalem. We call Mary also the Ark of the Covenant, because she carries the Lord in her womb. The old Ark carried the books of the Old Testament, as well as other sacred items, and it signifies the presence of God with his people. This presence cannot be compared to the presence of Christ in the womb of Mary. John, by leaping in the womb, is like David, dancing over the Ark of the Old Testament. Now, John dances over the Ark of the New Testament.
Secondly, John can be described as God’s sacred weapon because in his humble nature, God uses him to bring about our saviour. However, the main reason why this passage is especially attributed to John is that Jesus, did not at any point feel that he would have laboured in vain, but John did. John came to a point where he had to send his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one. John, may have at certain points in his life, felt he had laboured in vain. We also can feel that way. This can happen to us when we are not the main person in the action, and our duty is at the background. In our own little way, we make all the efforts we can to contribute our bit, but sometimes we could also ask ourselves ‘What difference does it make?’ or ‘Who cares?’. John was not the Christ. You and I are not the Christ, and as a result, we may sometimes feel our efforts are in vain.
First we should not feel that the salvation of the world depends on us, because it doesnt. Sometimes we can have what we call a messianic complex, where we feel like if we are not there things will fall apart. You and I are not the saviour of the world. So, the salvation of the world does not depend on us. This is why we must decrease so that He will increase. But secondly, we have to also know that we are not useless. Even though we are not the saviour, our contributions, no matter how insignificant it seems surely makes a difference. We should never despair and start feeling that we are useless and that our efforts are in vain. We are fellow workers with Christ to bring about the salvation of the world. We should never exagerate our importance nor consider ourselves useless. Whatever we do, even when we cannot notice it, makes a lot of difference. Sometimes, the difference we make goes so far to places we ourselves will never be
WHAT IS IN A NAME?
Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbours and kinsfolk heard that the Lord has shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zachariah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so, He shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marvelled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came to all their neighbours. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel. : We may wonder why the big fuss about the name of John. The name a child is given is not just for the sake of identification. Giving a name to a child is a serious thing. A name can be given to a child based on the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child. A name can also be given to a child based on what the family intends the child to become in future. They wanted to name him Zachariah, which means ‘the Lord has remembered’. The name has a beautiful meaning, but they wanted to name him after his father. Naming him after his father would mean that he would stand for everything his father stood for. But John would later seperate himself from the temple priesthood of his father. He would not be able to fulfill his purpose in life keeping the identity of being his father’s junior. The bible is not condemining someone being junior to his father. But this is not God’s plan for John. He is about to open a totally new chapter in salvation history. Therefore, he had to be given a totally new name, John, which means, ‘The Lord has done favour’ or ‘The Lord has been gracious’.
Usually, when people get baptized, they take a name. The same happens at confirmation, sometimes at religious professions but also when a new Pope is elected. Today, people give to their children all kinds of meaningless names. But during baptism and confirmation, we encourage people to take the name of saints or a name which has a religious meaning. The idea is that the person who takes the name of the saint, will try as much as possible to follow the example of that saint. The same idea is behind a Pope taking a new name. For example, Pope Francis took the name Francis because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, and we see this in his simplicity of life and his care for the poor. This means that a name is not just a form or identification, but an indication of how we understand our mission on earth. This is why John was named even already in his mother’s womb, because God already fashioned him to be the bridge through which we get to Christ. He is the bridge that led us from the Old Testament to the New Testament, so even though he was not the messiah, his mission was not in vain and it all started from him having the right name. None of us is useless. God created each and every one of us for a purpose. Life can get so tough that we ask ourselves ‘what is the use of even trying’. But do not forget that God does not create junks.