Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Isaiah 49:1-3, 5, 6, 7 / Luke 1:57-68

We can easily understand John the Baptist to be the very embodiment of humility. After all, his entire adult ministry was consumed with directing people away from himself, of calling his people to repentance that they might be ready for the coming of the day of the Lord. In his baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, he showed deep deference, even so much as to doubt the propriety of baptizing him, the laces of whose sandals he was not fit to untie. Although some still wished to cling to this compelling and charismatic prophet, he was altogether clear. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, must increase, while he, greater than any prophet born of woman, must decrease. The art of the Church has indeed captured his humility in the paradigmatic form of John the Baptist, his finger pointing us away from himself to Jesus Christ.

How odd it sounds, then, when the Church places in John's mouth the words of Isaiah the prophet: The Lord hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother He hath been mindful of my name. And He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He hath protected me, and hath made me as a chosen arrow; in His quiver He hath hidden me. And He said to me: Thou art My servant Israel, for in thee will I glory. Here there is no pointing away from himself, no call to decrease. Here there is no protestation of unworthiness. If we did not know better, we might well accuse John of possessing an unhealthy preoccupation with his own significance.

Yet, it is because we know that the Baptist was always prompt to direct his listeners to the One who was to come and deliver the world from sin that we can learn from this appropriation of Isaiah's words something important about humility. Humility is not a downplaying of one's gifts. It is not a refusal to recognize and acknowledge gratefully the wonders God has worked in and through us. It does not require that we follow up quickly with and affirmation of others' gifts.

Rather, humility is the recognition of what is true. It is false to deny one's gifts, false to claim not to have graces where God has lavished them so generously. What would be false, however, would be to fail to see this generosity as gift, to imagine some peculiar quality in oneself that did not come from God, that compels God in justice to reward us plentifully. What would be false would be to imagine that, because of these gifts, we ought to be immune to suffering and trial, or that we should always be successful in our endeavors. False pride fears the truth about others, fears that one day it will find its better, and so masks itself with claims of being little and of no consequence. Humility is ready and willing to name and acknowledge its own talents, and is not put out in the slightest to find that there is another who is greater.

This is the message John presents to us today. We are, each and every one of us, called by God for some unique task, some role in his building up the Kingdom, some place in the Body of Christ, which no one else has been graced or equipped to fill. Each of us has an indispensable role, and irreplaceable task, and in each of us, there are gifts that will bring the nations of the world to proclaim the wondrous works God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. At the same time, each of us has a better, someone whose gift is such that we ought with gladness and joy step aside that it might shine all the brighter. Are we humble enough to bear that truth?

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