Happy Birthday, St. John the Baptist! We celebrate a great feast today – the feast of our parish. You know birthdays are not always easy though. When we are kids it may seem that our birthdays never come. They. Take. Forever. And if one of our siblings has a birthday – lookout. Jealousy city. We want our birthday and wonder why all of the attention is on them. It is so hard not to help them open their presents and blow out the candles. I think part of us is unused to being in the background and we fear that we might be forgotten. Then when we are older and it seems our birthdays come more often we don’t really want them. Oh no, you don’t really have to put all of those candles on there. We think back to our youth and believe that we are missing some great quality that we used to have, and believe that others see us in this same light. If they know how old I am they might remember what I used to be. They will forget the goodness that I have now – in the present.
But today is John’s birthday and he loves life. Birthdays allow us to grab the spotlight – which John doesn’t seem to have been afraid of – and then to focus all of our attention on Christ. He has been doing it since before he was born when he leapt for joy at the approach of Jesus in the womb of Mary. Mary had come to help Elizabeth and John and John draws attention to Jesus. The giving of his name frees the tongue of Zechariah, his father, who then glorifies God and prophesies how John is preparing the way for Jesus. John then goes into the desert and does everything to get people to wake up and repent. You know it’s not easy to repent.
Back to the birthday thing for a second. Birthdays in the modern world are a great example of the challenge. We are challenged because while it is institutions like the family which help us to remember things like our birthdays and celebrate them. Yet the decline of the family has hit us the point that many may feel isolated from any kind of institutional memory. Then we have to do all the remembering on our own. No wonder it may seem harder than ever to admit a mistake. We can easily feel like we’re the only ones who will remember the good things – better not admit we have made any mistakes or even more attention will focus on the bad things about us. But, if we are not able to repent, we will not sense the need to celebrate the One whose presence demands our repentance.
So John humbles himself over and over to draw attention to the coming Great One. Now imagine the biggest day of John’s ministry when Jesus….whom John from before he was born has been saying… “Get ready for this guy”….all of the sudden “this guy – the guy who we’ve all been waiting for” walks up and instead of declaring Himself to be the Savior – rather He asks to be baptized too. Jesus says in other words, John I want to humble myself before you too in this way that has all about preparing the way of the Messiah! Can you imagine that moment? John could easily have been tempted to think: “Let me get this straight – I’ve been heralding your lordship my whole life and now you want to humble yourself before me and treat me as if I am Your lord? I don’t get it.” But Christ knows the whole picture. He knows that if He is baptized, and humbled even below John – even submerging Himself beneath the water that John pours – that He will be exalted (the last shall be first) and He will pave the way for us…We can follow the same pattern: if our life is one of dropping to our knees, we will one day be lifted to Christ’s feet.
But beyond a mere lifting up of the lowly – which Jesus models for us – Christ solve another difficulty. You see John is right when he says that he is not worthy to stoop to loosen the straps of Christ’s sandals. He cannot connect with God on his own. But while the Baptist is not worthy to approach Christ, Christ shows that He wants to connect so much that He will humble Himself to meet John in his lowliness and even get beneath it so that a connection can be made. God is with us when we let go of our excuses and repent of our sinfulness.
The joy that comes from forgetting ourselves of course does not end there. It spreads. Not only are we enabled to rejoice in the freedom from sin that comes from repentance, but we are enabled to rejoice in the joy of others. That whole birthday problem when we are jealous of the attention that is focused upon another – God in remembering us and being with us in all things gives us the ability to truly rejoice in others’ joy when they seem to achieve some impressive notoriety. When we are able to rejoice with others our joy does not cease. Christ has conquered death and gives us the ability to love Him and rejoice in this glory eternally and always and now. St. John, the spotlight is on you and you have shared it with Christ and we rejoice that in forgetting ourselves we can connect with the exalted and the lowly at the same time.