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Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist (B)

Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80

June 24, 2012


John the Baptist: a colorful, larger-than-life, strange figure, he foreshadows Jesus and indeed seems both to live in his shadow and to shadow him across the landscape. A person of contrasts himself, he also appears in stark contrast to Jesus. On this feast I find myself pondering shadows and contrasts, looking for insight to enrich the coming days.

Self-described as "not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals", John was evidently deeply attached to and impressed by his kinsman/cousin Jesus, and burst on the scene, attracting considerable notice by his appearance and proclamation of repentance, but always pointing to Jesus. Yet his own understanding of repentance or conversion (metanoia), and his personal commitment to Jesus, must leave us with some questions, some thoughts that might be disconcerting or perhaps rather comforting, as we attempt to live as faithful followers of Jesus ourselves.

The closest disciples of Jesus - by no means only the Twelve, and including many named and unnamed women and men - are those who are able to "understand" (sunienai) his teaching and example, so that they are converted and follow his Way in their lives. But there's the rub: some people (then and now) might think they understand and follow, but do not always meet with Jesus' approval. The problem is that we are all prejudiced, biased, blinkered and limited. Someone once said: "You repent, not by feeling bad but by thinking differently." But such is the pervasive influence of our cultural conditioning, it is often a good deal easier to feel bad ("Catholic guilt") than it is to think (and act) differently. That makes our own conversion more of a good intention or a pious wish, than a reality. To feel bad and yet to do nothing is not a sign of conversion.

How much did John the Baptist understand, about who Jesus really was, and about the cost of being one of his disciples? Unquestionably John was a good man - a great man even (Mt 11:11). And yet ... What "pre-understanding" did he bring to his vocation? What limitations might that have imposed on his capacity to respond to Jesus? When he was in prison, John sent two of his own disciples to ask Jesus whether he was indeed the Messiah (Mt 11:1-6), and they were instructed to tell John what they had heard and seen. And Jesus concluded, "Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me." But although John's Gospel tells us that two of John's disciples became disciples of Jesus, it seems clear that both John and Jesus had discrete groups of disciples and even continued with different baptisms. But the most salient point on this Feast Day is that we have no biblical affirmation that John ever became a disciple of Jesus. To this day a community of John's disciples still exists. As Michael Crosby has suggested (Biblical Theology Bulletin, 38, 4 (2008): 158-162), if John's "pre-understanding" of the Messiah prevented him from making the final leap of faith, then perhaps he can be for those of us who are still "on the Way", an example of the agnostic who, with great integrity, continues to search, to ask questions, and to hope for the grace of enlightenment and the enlightenment of grace.

In the First Reading, Isaiah speaks of being called to glorify God and becomes a light to the nations. John the Baptist shares the same vocation. In the Second Reading, David is the unworthy precursor, and is compared to John, "unworthy to untie the thong of his sandal." Yet, given his own limitations and pre-understanding, both of the Messiah and of his own role, there are significant differences between John and Jesus. These shadows and contrasts might give us more food for thought in the coming days. Here is Albert Nolan: "Conversion in John the Baptist's time meant fasting and doing penance. In Jesus' time it was more like accepting an invitation to a feast, or discovering a treasure or priceless pearl for which one happily sacrificed everything else. In John's time, forgiveness was a future possibility, dependent on Baptism; in Jesus' time forgiveness was a present reality, and Baptism in the Jordan was no longer necessary. Conversion is a radical reorientation of one's life. It admits of no compromise and no half-measures." (Jesus Before Christianity, 94).

By Anthony J. Gittins, C.S.Sp., Professor of Mission and Culture

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