John the Baptist - Nativity - Jun 24th

The Lord called me: You are my servant.

This is the second of the four “servant songs” in Isaiah. (Isaiah 40-50). These songs exalt the perfect Israelite, whose suffering saves many people. (Isaiah 53: ii). In one sense, the songs apply to Israel and to all of its great leaders; but in another sense, they apply ultimately and uniquely to Jesus alone. (Acts 3:13,26)

Today’s reading applies this second song to John the Baptist. What the servant says of himself in this song could be said by all of us: “The Lord called me from birth ... you are my servant.”
Do we look upon ourselves as having been called by God into his service? “God has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission—I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. ” John Henry Newman
The birth of a child is certainly not a casual or ordinary matter. There is a whole spectrum of emotions involved – excitement, anxiety, worry, happy …And along with that are hopes and dreams and expectations of what the future will be like with the arrival of the child. Indeed, the birth of a child is no ordinary or casual matter.

We can even say that every birth of a child changes the whole of humanity. And the birth of John the Baptist, the feast that we celebrate today, is certainly quite dramatic.

When his father, Zechariah, the priest of the Temple, was told by the angel Gabriel that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a child even though she was advanced in age and considered barren, Zechariah was skeptical and cynical.

For that he was struck dumb.

And then when Mary visited Elizabeth, the baby leapt in her womb. That must be really dramatic for Elizabeth. As if that was not dramatic enough, then comes the naming of the baby.

Elizabeth and Zachariah insisted that he be called “John” and then Zechariah regained his power of speech and he praised God. The neighbours were awed and with so much drama, they wondered what would this child turn out to be.

They might have thought that John would follow his father’s footsteps and become a priest of the Temple, or become someone famous and influential in the world of status and lime-light.

Yes, he did become someone famous and influential. He became John the Baptist, who wore clothes made of camel-hair and ate locusts and wild honey and lived in the wilderness of the desert.

His name was John (Yehonan) and his name means “God is gracious” or “the grace of God”.

Indeed, it was the grace of God that chose him to be the greatest of all the prophets, because it was he who pointed out Jesus, the Lamb of God, to the people.

Yes, John the Baptist lived up to his name as “the grace of God”.

His call for repentance and conversion led people to the baptism for the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist prepared the people for the gracious coming of the Son of God among the people.

As we celebrated the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, we honour the great prophet who prepared the way for Jesus Christ.

We also give thanks for the outpouring of God’s grace, the grace that also makes us prophets of God.

Yes, John the Baptist was not just the greatest of all the prophets, but also in him the grace of God worked powerfully and wonderfully.

Yes, John the Baptist lived up to his name. That was John the Baptist, a great figure in the Bible.

Now, what would we expect of someone with a name like “Dolores” (Dolores means sorrow!)

But some of us may remember a Dolores Hart.
Dolores Hart was born in 1938 to teenage parents who were bit-part actors and who later divorced.

Dolores had some Catholic upbringing, but in her teens she followed the footsteps of her parents by becoming an actress. In 1957, she acted in a supporting role as the love interest of Elvis Presley in the movie “Loving you”.   In that movie, they kissed and it was Elvis’ first on-screen kiss. 
Dolores became an instant star and she was so natural and effortless as an actress and she was hot in demand. 
From that time onwards, Dolores Hart was draped with furs and expensive gowns and surrounded by men! She was beautiful, she had super-star status, she had the lime-light on her, she had million-dollar movie contracts, she had everything. But by 1958, she felt fatigued and a friend suggested that she take a rest at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine monastery.

At first she scorned at the idea of going to a place where there are nuns, but the friend told her that the nuns won’t talk to her because they are contemplative nuns. So she arrived at the monastery in a studio limousine, and she immediately loved the quiet and the simplicity, and found her inner peace.

At that time, she was also preparing for the wedding to Don Robinson, a Los Angeles architect. But there at the monastery, it hit her that she was in love with God. Well in the end, Dolores Hart gave up the lime-light, a promising movie career, fur coats and expensive gowns, and even the man she was supposed to marry. She gave up all that, and at 23 years-old, she entered the Benedictine monastery where she found her peace and her love for God.

Everyone in the show biz, and also the nuns, thought she was nuts. In fact, the nuns thought she was a “lightweight” and that she won’t stay long. Even Dolores herself thought she was nuts. She felt like as if she leapt off a 20-storey building. But just as John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb, Dolores Hart leapt into the gracious and tender hands of a loving God.

Well, in the gracious hands of God, the now Mother Dolores Hart stayed for 50 years in the same Benedictine monastery where she is now the prioress. There is a documentary on her life called "God is the bigger Elvis" which was nominated for a Grammy this year. You may want to check out that documentary.

Yet, she was often asked, not about what she gave up, but rather about that kiss with Elvis Presley in the movie. Her reply was this : An on-screen kiss last only about 15 secs, but that one seemed to have lasted for 50 years, because people keep talking about it even after 50 years. Yes, some things are indeed difficult to let go and give up. Oh I also forgot to mention about Don Robinson, the Los Angeles architect whom Dolores Hart was supposed to have married.

He also gave up the idea of marriage, i.e. he never got married. He was quoted as saying “I never found a love like Dolores”. Nonetheless, he visited Dolores every year at the monastery until he passed away in November last year. But for Dolores Hart and Don Robinson, and more so for John the Baptist, the grace of God worked powerfully and wonderfully.

When Jesus came into the scene, John the Baptist pointed Him out as the One who is to come. John the Baptist gave up the attention and the fame and the lime-light and faded off into the background.

In the 2nd reading, we heard that before he ended his ministry he said : I am not the one you imagine me to be. That one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandals. One of the profound sayings of John the Baptist is this : He must increase and I must decrease. With the grace of God, John the Baptist knew when to let go and what to give up and that he must decrease. With the grace of God, may we know when to let go so as to let God go ahead of us. With the grace of God, may we know what to give up that is earthly and receive what is heavenly. With the grace of God, may we step back and decrease, so that God may increase in our hearts, just as it did for John the Baptist.

Fr. Tony Kadavil's Collection:

1: John’s birthday in Church history and tradition: This is one of the oldest feasts on the Church calendar. In the early Church, as in medieval times, this was one of the biggest feasts of the year. As was done on Christmas, three masses were offered, one at midnight, and two in the morning. All over Europe, fires were lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of this feast. The people had parties and lit bonfires in honor of John because our Lord called him a “burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35). These fires, sometimes called St. John’s fires, were lit on St. John’s Eve and burned until at least midnight. These fires were also a sign of Christ the Light, and a reminder that we, too, are called to be a light for the world. In Catholic sections of Europe, people prayed together to Saint John for his intercession that the summer might be blessed in homes, fields, and country. 

Finally, they performed some of the traditional folk dances, usually accompanied by singing and music. In addition to celebrating around outdoor fires, other customs included decorating one’s home with flowers, making floral wreaths (which were sometimes sent down a river as a symbol of Jesus’ baptism), placing sprigs of St. Johnswort around the house much as we do Palm Sunday palms, and eating strawberries. This feast placed three months after the feast of the Annunciation, and six months before Christmas, also served the useful purpose of supplanting the immoral pagan feasts of the Summer solstice. St. John the Baptist was highly honored throughout the whole Church from the beginning. Proof of this is, among other things, the fact that fifteen churches were dedicated to him in the ancient imperial city of Constantinople.

# 2: The crippled Doctor who transformed tragedy into sacrificial service: Take the story of Mary Varghese. Mary Varghese was a brilliant young Indian surgeon. Crippled as a result of a car accident, she was able to feel and move only her arms and her head. But she believed that God could still use her, and she became interested in treating lepers. In the words of John Lane, "She realized she could transform their wasted stumps into something like hands and feet. Mary Varghese underwent major surgery herself so that she could be made to sit upright in a wheelchair. In her operating room at Vellore, she reconstructed hands and feet and faces, the type of surgery that can be performed from a wheelchair, a type of surgery she would never have done if she had not been deprived of her normal strength. What for many would be catastrophe, for Mary Varghese became opportunity." [John E. Lane, Expository Times 96 (Fifth Sunday in Lent, 19), 145-146.] That is what the parents of John the Baptist, Zachariah and Elizabeth, did, transforming the painful memory of their childlessness into service, for Zechariah in the Temple of God, for Elizabeth at home.

3: Others listen, but they don't really hear:" Flannery O'Connor, the South Georgia novelist, was a semi-invalid. She was confined to her home and she raised peacocks. One day a repairman came to her farm and she invited him to stop his work to watch her peacocks in the barnyard. She was enthralled with their beauty and she wanted to share it. She described how "the bird turned slightly to the right and the little planets above him hung in bronze, then he turned to the left and they were hung in green." As the peacocks walked away, she asked the repairman, "Well, what did you think of that?", to which he responded, "Never saw such long ugly legs! I'll bet that rascal could outrun a bus!" Some people look and listen, but they don't really see. And that's the way it is with us, isn't it? Others, Jesus said, "listen, but they don't really hear." That is what happened to Zechariah when the angel spoke to him. Zechariah was startled -- surprised - that the angel would speak to him.

4: “God explains himself very well!" In his novel, The Clowns of God, Morris West has Jean-Marie, the Pope, say, "The biggest mistake we have made through the ages is to try to explain the ways of God to men. We shouldn't do that. We should just announce Him. He explains Himself very well!" Well, He does. God explains Himself in his action, and Zechariah knew that as we do. Zechariah knew about the mighty acts of God in the history of his people -- the deliverance from Egyptian captivity -- the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea -- the gift of God of the promised land -- and God's activity through judges, kings, prophets. Zechariah knew the story. He knew that God had acted -- that God had intervened and sometimes that intervention had been dramatic -- sometimes very personal. Yet, here the Angel was speaking to him, and he was startled. It is no less true with us.

5: Whistling for closeness: Once a man was driving along the country road lost his way. Looking for some person to give him fresh direction, he went ahead and discovered a farm house with a man working in the field and an elderly woman sitting right in front of the house doing some little odd things. The old man in the farm was whistling clearly and loudly and he was certainly out of tune. To overcome his curiosity and also to find directions the man went there to him and asked for directions which he got instantly. Then he asked why he was whistling all the while, was it part of his work? The man said that he had been married for 45 years and the couple had been happy together. But suddenly his wife lost her sight and became helpless. In order to acknowledge his closeness to her and his presence he would whistle all the while, so she would know he was close to her. Zachariah and Elizabeth were equally sad over their barrenness and hence they spent time together praising God and serving the pilgrims. (Fr. Lobo)

6Be the finger of John the Baptist: Karl Barth, the great 20th century Calvinist theologian, would wake up early in the morning, read the newspaper, and stare at a painting by Grunewald called Crucifixion. Jesus is hanging from the cross, apparently dead, while Mary and others morn. John the Baptist, holding the Scriptures and leaning away from Christ, is pointing to Jesus on the Cross. Before he would teach theology or write in his famous work Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth would meditate on this painting, particularly on John the Baptist. He said that, as a Christian (whether a theologian, pastor, teacher, mother, doctor, storekeeper, etc.), our job is to be the finger (and only the finger), of John the Baptist. The only thing we should do – indeed, the only thing we can do – is simply point to Jesus on the cross. This scene painted by Grunewald is the sum of all history, from Creation in the past to eternity. And we are that finger, and within that finger rests the weight of salvation.

Joke of the week (birthday jokes)
1)    Some employees bought their boss a gift for his birthday. Before opening the gift, the boss shook it slightly, and noticed that it was wet in the corner. Touching his finger to the wet spot and tasting it, he asked, "A bottle of wine?"
His employees replied, "No."
Again, he touched his finger to the box and tasted the liquid. "A bottle of scotch?"
"His employees replied again, "No."
Finally the boss asked, "I give up. What is it?"
His workers responded, "A puppy."
2)     It's a hot day, and there's a traveling salesman passing through a small town in Texas when he sees a little old man sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a house. So, he stops and says to the little old man, "You look as if you don't have a care in the world! What's your formula for a long and happy life?" And the little old man says, "Well, I smoke six packs of cigarettes a day, I drink a quart of bourbon every four hours and six cases of beer a week. I never wash, and I go out every night; I don't get to bed until four in the morning." And the guy says, "Wow, that's just great. How old are you?" And the little man says, "Twenty-two."
3)     A little boy was kneeling beside his bed with his mother and grandmother and softly saying his prayers, "Dear God, please bless Mummy and Daddy and all the family and please give me a good night's sleep." Suddenly he looked up and shouted, "And don't forget to give me a bicycle for my birthday!!" "There is no need to shout like that," said his mother. "God isn't deaf." "No," said the little boy, "but Grandma is."

Additional anecdotes: 
1) Pointing the wayMother Teresa relates this incident from her life. Once a man came to the home for the dying in Kalighat, and just walked straight into the ward. Mother Teresa was sitting there. A while later the man came to Mother and said to her, “I came here with so much hate in my heart; hate for God and hate for man. I came here empty and embittered, and I saw a Sister giving her wholehearted attention to that patient there and realized that God still lives. Now I go out a different man. I believe there is a God and he loves us still.” That sister paved the way for God in that embittered man’s life. John the Baptist, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah was the voice that was making the way straight for the Lord. He facilitated the coming of Jesus. He paved the way for Christ’s coming by his austere life, preaching and death. (John Rose in John’s Sunday Homilies;   quoted by Fr. Botelho)

2) What’s in a name? William Shakespeare in his play Romeo and Juliet wrote, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Actually, in Biblical names there was often a rich meaning in the name. When the time came to circumcise this child, neighbors and relatives expected him to be named after his father, Zechariah. But his mother insisted, “No, he is to be called John.” “The name, “John,” in Hebrew is “Yehohanan.” It means “The Lord is gracious,” or maybe better, “The Lord shows favor.” The birthday of John Baptist relates to the birth of Jesus. The Church selected the time of the winter solstice to celebrate the birth of Jesus because from that time the days gradually grow longer; the amount of daylight increases. The Church selected the time of the summer solstice to celebrate the birth of the Baptist because from this time the days gradually grow shorter; the amount of daylight diminishes. This symbolizes the words of the Baptist in speaking of Jesus, “He must increase while I must decrease”
(Charles Miller in Sunday Preaching; quoted by Fr. Botelho) L/18
From Fr. Jude Botelho:

The prophet Isaiah was well aware of the specialness of his calling and vocation. “The Lord called me before I was born; while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. In the shadow of his hand he hid me.” He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be gloried.” “I will give you as the light of the nations, that my salvation will reach the ends of the earth.”

“He will be called John”
In our culture, sometimes a name is not much more than the whim of our parents. But in many cultures, and in the Bible certainly, people were given names, which embodied their parents hope for their children. Names often served as prophecies about what a new life would mean for the whole nation. Because naming was such a crucial business, a person could be renamed if his or her life took a crucial turn. Names gave identity and belonging, as in our present use of first and last names. The idea that God gives someone a name in the womb, then, is a way of saying that God brings a life into being intentionally and with a purpose. When Elizabeth and Zachariah had a son, they named him John, as the angel had prompted them to. John means “God has shown favor” and the truth of the statement was revealed in the ministry of John. –Consider the meaning of your name, or perhaps the name under which you were confirmed. Has the meaning of your name been revealed in your life?
John Pichappilly in ‘Ignite Your Spirit’

Today’s gospel records the birth of John the Baptist told in great detail as it was a wondrous event. Neighbors and relatives rejoice at his birth and his father Zachariah’s speech is returned at his birth. The gospel says that they were going to call the child Zachariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No, He will be called John.” Elizabeth was a wise old woman. She knew that the baby that had come into being in her body at so late an age was given to her for a special purpose. Her husband had not been struck speechless all these months by accident. Nor had her young cousin Mary, visited her for no reason. God was doing something new here, in all this, something really rare. So she would not allow the relatives to name the baby after the father. He was not going to take his place in going to be like his father. This child was God’s child and God had some novel purpose for him that had yet to be revealed. Elizabeth refused to fetter the boy with the burden of his father’s identity, when he was destined to be something the world had not yet seen. Wise parents know that God gives them a child with a purpose. Wise parents know to bring them up as God’s children. Gathering as a believing community today reminds us that God is with us and that our lives have a purpose.

The new can be good
A film producer, notorious for his habit of belittling any suggestion from his co-workers was taken ill. No sooner had he left the set, an actor hung a sign which read: In case of fire, do not call the Fire Department. Just call our producer. He’ll put a wet blanket on it. No one can be expected to accept every new idea or suggestion which is offered him. Each of us should use his judgement each time some novel notion or solution to a problem is presented. But there is such a thing as developing the bad habit of resisting the new because it is new. If we are to change the world at all, we must recognize that the very idea of change implies something new. The fact that a method is old does not mean it is good; because it is new it is not necessarily bad. We ought to adapt changeless truths to our changing times.
J. Maurus in ‘Today is Ours’

The Home we need
Often the value of a thing is best seen in its absence. This is certainly true in the case of a family. Take the case of Johnny. There is something broken in Johnny –something in his mind or heart. He grew up in a large urban area. He was only seven when his father left. His mother did the best she could, but it wasn’t good enough. When at nine Johnny was sent to his granny’s place to make room at home he felt rejected. He was in trouble from the age of ten –fighting, shoplifting, and so on. At fourteen he was into housebreaking. Next it was into joy riding in stolen cars. Soon he was well known in the juvenile court. He was sent to a reform school for six months, but when he came out he went back to his old ways. Then he was sent to a lock-up center. Here he had a team of professionals looking after him, all experts in fixing up broken kids. There was a doctor, a nurse, a psychiatrist, a welfare officer, a housefather and mother, and so on. It cost the state a staggering 70,000 pounds annually to keep him there. Will all those experts succeed in fixing Johnny? It’s possible but far from certain. And just think of it. All those experts could be got rid off in the morning. Their work could be done, and done far more efficiently, by two people: a man and a woman. Not the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman either; just two very ordinary people –two parents. If Johnny had two parents who loved him and cared for him in the first place, he would never have got broken, and he would never have needed all those experts. The family is vital for our well-being as individuals and for the well-being of society as a whole. No family is perfect, but no better place for raising children has been devised.
Flor McCarthy in ‘New Sunday & Holy Day Liturgies’

Building God’s Kingdom
I remember an elderly priest saying, “To serve is hard work and often humbling – but being a servant of Christ is Joy.” We have to remember, we are not sampling mortar. We are building a Cathedral. We do not give time and money grudgingly; we are building the Body of Christ. We have been entrusted with a stewardship. It is good to have money and the things money can buy, but it is good to check up once in a while and make sure you haven’t lost the things money can’t buy. Opals are often dull and lusterless when first picked up. After a few moments in the hand they become bright and glowing with soft colors that make them so beautiful and appealing. They have been called ‘sympathetic jewels’ because of this response to the hand that holds them. The explanation for the change we are told is that opals are composed of sensor crystals. They need the warmth of the human touch for them to sparkle. Money as well, can be dull and without life or color. But suddenly it glows into warmth, quickened into new beauty and new vitality because it is shared with God’s ministry to others. God’s touch releases the brilliance, the glow, the luster, when we put our money and other resources in the hands of God.
John Pichappilly in ‘The Table of the Word’

You are graced by God’s presence!
The greatness of John the Baptist consisted in two very important facts. First, he was chosen by God to be the predecessor or forerunner of Jesus Christ. Second, his birth and the circumstances are nothing short of the most miraculous. His parents, Elizabeth and Zachariah, were well beyond child-bearing age. Nonetheless, Elizabeth did conceive and bore a son, so that all wondered what will this child grow to be. The ways of God are mysterious, but always marvellous. All of us are blessed when we are born into this world. We are further blessed by the way we are brought up by wonderful parents who not only give us life but help us to discover the fullness of life through faith. What we will become will be the unfolding of God’s present to us! Rejoice, the best is yet to come!
James V. ‘Your Words O Lord are Spirit, and They Are Life’