June 21, 2017

Reflection for the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

St. John the Baptist
The Naming of John the Baptist, Fra Angelico, 1435. 

Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

June 24, 2017

By Msgr. Bernard Bourgeois

Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 139; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80
“John is his name.” (Lk 1:60)

Have you ever considered yourself to be the most unqualified person to be placed into a situation where you were compelled to lead? Shortly after my ordination to priesthood, my first pastor died of cancer. In my mid-twenties, I was thrust into the leadership role of that parish until a new pastor was appointed. It was a daunting task as the parish was large and active. In the months leading up to the pastor’s death and the weeks after his funeral, the parish looked to me to lead and guide them through the daily parish activities and the transition to a new pastor. I was the most unlikely person to do so; at the time, I was the youngest and most inexperienced priest in the diocese. With God’s help and a lot of prayer, the parish and I not only survived the time, we actually grew in our faith. God made it happen!

The Bible is filled with such stories. Moses himself knew he wasn’t the perfect candidate to lead Israel into freedom. Jeremiah even accused God of “duping” him. Our Blessed Mother Mary was a poor, young girl with no political or social status whatsoever. The apostles certainly weren’t trained for their roles in Christianity, and Paul was perhaps the most unlikely apostle of them all, having murdered many Christians prior to his conversion. By worldly standards, these were all unlikely people to accomplish God’s will. But by God’s ways, they were the right candidates at the right time and place to do His will. God sees the heart of each person and knows what he is capable of.

Today’s Gospel, which should be read in conjunction with the Gospel of the Vigil of this feast (Luke 1:5- 24), tells the story of a couple who would be the most unlikely by today’s standards to accomplish God’s will. Enter Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth is a “kinswoman” of Mary’s. She and her husband, Zechariah, are barren and advanced in years. Zechariah was of the priestly class and it was his turn to go into the sanctuary to offer incense to God. The crowd anxiously prayed outside the sanctuary while he incensed. While Zechariah was performing his task, an angel appeared to him letting him know that he and Elizabeth would conceive a son who would be the forerunner of the Lord. Zechariah was dumbfounded; he told the angel he and Elizabeth were too old for this. It is impossible! The angel let him know it was God who would make this happen and that because he didn’t believe it, he would be mute until the events took place.

Do you see Zechariah’s point of view? His all-too human response would be yours and mine. This is an unlikely situation and by human standards could not happen. God proved otherwise, and Elizabeth and Zechariah were added to the list of unqualified candidates through whom God intervened in the world.

It is clear that while Zechariah was struck mute by the angel he did some soul searching. Indeed, Elizabeth was now with child. While Zechariah is not part of the visitation story, he must have been there and thus knew that Mary, too, was with child. What could all of this mean? In this period, Zechariah learned to be patient with God. His heart was opened to God, and he began to see that God indeed does things differently. Maybe ... just maybe ... God’s hand was in this and God knew what He was doing! There was a discussion at John’s birth concerning his name. Elizabeth wanted John, but there was no John in their family. Zechariah called for a tablet and wrote: John is his name. At this point, he was able to speak, and he praised God. Zechariah is the unsung hero at John’s birth. He learns to be patient with God and trust in His will, even when it doesn’t seem that what is happening is in accord with human standards.

And so it goes with you and me, thousands of years later. God is still working through unlikely candidates. We lead parishes, schools, families, businesses, and communities. Not a one of us is qualified by human standards for any of it. We are prideful, sinful, and stubborn. Yet, in spite of all of our human foibles, God still works through us in whatever vocation He made our own. He knows us and knows our gifts. Today we learn from Zechariah to be open to God’s grace, to be patient and to trust in Him. Like Zechariah we praise God, seek His help and protection, and allow Him to work through us. And thus will our names be added to the “unlikely candidate” list in the Bible—what great company!

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