Every year on June 24th the Church remembers in a special way the birth of the great prophet, John the Baptist. So important is his commemoration that when June 24th falls on a Sunday, the Church likewise keeps the feast. This is also the day of our yearly recalling the beginning of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, on June 24th, 1964. On that day our three founders, Fathers Aelred Wall, Placid Cormey and Basil De Pinto, driving here from New York state, crossed into New Mexico, and henceforth it became the official date of the beginning of our Monastery. Today our monastery is 57 years old! Alleluia.
To return to the main focus of this day, it must be said that we know something, but not a lot, about Saint John the Baptist. Though clearly his words and deeds are recorded for us in various places in the Gospel accounts, a complete picture of his personality and mission are not contained in the canonical Gospels nor other biblical texts.
With the little we know about John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, it is possible to discern the personality and message of the “last of the prophets,” to use one John’s various titles. He went on to be an important martyr and a patron saint of many parishes, religious orders and even part of the country of many of my ancestors, Canada. My otherwise very secular calendar, a pocket-sized “Month at-a-glance,” contains these the following in small print for this day: “St. Jean Baptiste (Quebec).”
The Christian Gospels tell us that John was born of parents who were already well on in years, presumably not capable of having a child, yet in fact they did. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, put their trust in God who heard their prayer and sent an offspring. At his birth, rather than being named after his father, the child was given the name “John,” which means, “the graciousness of God.” As proclaimed in the Zechariah’s canticle, now used by the Church every day at the Office of Lauds, John was to announce the rising Sun, Christ, who had come to visit his people and bring redemption (see the Canticle of Zechariah, found in Luke 1:68-79).
This important and inspired New Testament text which we chant each morning at Lauds at the arrival of the light of a new day, announces that we have been visited by our God, who brings the gift of salvation for all the nations in the person of Jesus Christ.
John’s next appearance in scripture was as an adult, emerging from the desert of Judah, dressed like an earlier prophet, Elijah, wearing a robe of camel’s hair and proclaiming to the peoples a baptism of repentance and that the arrival of God’s kingdom and the appearance of the Messiah in their midst. Then, as now, the message was accepted by some and rejected by others. John’s words regarding the call to repentance included the undergoing of ceremonial washing in preparation for the fuller washing the Messiah would bring, described as a “baptism with the holy Spirit and fire” (see Matthew 3:1-12).
John called himself “a voice of one crying in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord,” the very words of the Prophet Isaiah, written centuries earlier. Now the Messianic age had arrived, and John, who announced the new era, said clearly that the Messiah “must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Still young and with an important message to bear, John was beheaded at the order of King Herod, ultimately for John’s stance again the immorality of Herod. Jesus spoke of John in the unforgettable phrase: “Of those born of women, there has not arisen a greater than John.” For this reason, the Church throughout the world venerates Saint John the Baptist, and in a special way on this day.
Certainly our world today needs to know Christ. Not unlike the times of John the Baptist, there is much confusion among peoples, not knowing the true source and goal of their life. We need to hear the voice of John once again, pointing out to us: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world” This is none other than Jesus Christ, whom we hold to be the Redeemer of the human race.
John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, at the start of Jesus’ public ministry. That act is a reminder to each of us that we are likewise partakers in the mission of Jesus to draw all people to a life of communion in the Blessed Trinity. It begins in this life and extends into life eternal after death.
One of the truths of this great day is that all peoples have been and are called by God to experience the unbounded generosity of our God. Even in the midst of doubt, confusion, aridity in the desert, there is always a message of hope for the peoples of all lands. John the Baptist was convinced of this reality and laid his life on the line in the service of God’s kingdom. Like John the Baptist, each of us is called to cry out: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths.” We do that by a life of self-forgetfulness and love, of integrity and righteousness in God’s sight.
We may be tempted and pulled in many directions in our daily lives, but if we ponder the sacred texts of our Tradition, and willingly participate in the liturgy and sacraments of the Church, we are better fortified to live upright, joyful and peaceful lives.
May the example of Saint John the Baptist, set before us this day encourage us. May he intercede for each of us to give our lives for others.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB