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Gospel Commentary: John the Baptist, humble and bold

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john the baptistLK 1:57-66, 80

In the tradition of the Church, the feast day of a saint is usually celebrated on the date of their death when he or she enters into eternal life. It is rare — only twice each year — that we celebrate the birth of a saint. One occasion is the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Sept. 8, nine months after we commemorate her Immaculate Conception, the singular grace that made her a fit dwelling place for Jesus Christ. Conceived and born free of original sin, we joyfully celebrate her birth each year. 

The second saint whose birth is marked on the liturgical calendar is John the Baptist, whose Nativity is celebrated on June 24. Jesus told his disciples that “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). While not immaculately conceived as Mary was, the Archangel Gabriel did promise Zechariah that his son John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:15). In order that the Holy Spirit could dwell within him, John had to be freed from original sin before his birth, which, according to a tradition of the Church, occurred when he first met Jesus Christ at the Visitation. There, while both he and Our Lord were still in their mothers’ wombs, John leaped for joy at their encounter when the Blessed Mother came to visit her cousin Elizabeth after the Annunciation. 

This joyful event showed John the Baptist’s mission of announcing the coming of the Messiah. He is the last prophet, bridging the Old Covenant and the New. His privileged vocation, unique in salvation history, offers us a beautiful example of how to proclaim Jesus Christ through our words and actions, and in particular, how this requires and fosters a seemingly paradoxical combination of humility and boldness. 

The boldness of Saint John the Baptist is seen in his preaching, which is focused on preparing the way for Jesus Christ. His boldness comes from the magnitude of his message. The Messiah is the long-awaited one sent to save the people of Israel, and John shares the news of his arrival freely, joyfully and with urgency. The news is urgent because it demands preparation, that is, the conversion of heart that allows the truth, charity and glory of Jesus Christ to fall on good soil and bear much fruit. This boldness also enables John to call others to repentance, not in judgement, but in charity, that they may be saved when the meet Our Lord.

His deference to the one for whom he is preparing the way is the sign of his humility. John said, “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (Jn 1:30), and, “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” (Mk 1:7). In the Jordan River, when Christ approached John to be baptized, John tries to defer to Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Mt 3:14), but obediently proceeds when Jesus insists. Finally, when Jesus begins his ministry, it is John who steps aside, saying, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). John knows that his life is not for his own glorification, but to bring others to Jesus.

Though the eyes of the world, the humble cannot be bold, because the world mistakes humility for timidness or even self-loathing. True humility, however, recognizes the truth that the Baptist proclaimed: “No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven” (Jn 3:27). May we imitate the boldness of John the Baptist through our proclamation of the joyful and urgent message of salvation, and imitate his humility by recognizing that the gifts and graces we receive are meant to serve and glorify Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Fr. Wagner is parochial vicar at St. Veronica Church in Chantilly.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018