Summary: The birth of John the Baptist gives us a clear sign of his message--Christ must increase; we must decrease.
Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist
June 24, 2011
There are only two birthday celebrations of men in the liturgical year. A line through them cuts the year exactly in half. Today, around the summer solstice, we celebrate the birth of John, who was the precursor of his cousin, Jesus, whose birth is celebrated at the winter solstice. From this day, the longest in the year, every day will be shorter than the day before. After Christmas day, about the shortest in the year, every day will be longer than the day before. It was John who said “[Christ] must increase; I must decrease.” This reality is signed forth in our liturgical year.
There is another example of the Church’s good humor in today’s Gospel. We see the end of the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their newborn son, John. It’s almost funny how the people are pictured making signs to Zechariah, asking him what John’s name should be. He wanted to yell, “I can’t speak–BUT I CAN HEAR YOU.” Zechariah had been ministering in the Temple nine months earlier, when an angel appeared to him, Gabriel, God’s messenger. Now we picture angels as little cherubs about yea high. No, there was no roof on the Temple, so Gabriel was probably about three stories tall. And when he told Zechariah that he would be father of a boy to be named John, Zechariah foolishly asked “how shall I know that this is true?” We can imagine the angel–this is nobody to trifle with–saying “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” Anyway, for his lack of faith, Zechariah lost his voice completely, and had to listen to his wife for the next nine months without being able to respond.
St. Luke contrasts Zechariah’s lack of faith with the response of Mary, just six months later. The same angel appears to her to tell her that she would be the mother of a Messiah, Jesus. She asks how this will happen, since she is determined to be a virgin. The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her and that her child will be God’s Son. Without hesitation, she says, “OK.” That’s faith, and her response changed the history of the entire world. Because, as the prayer of Zechariah when his tongue was loosened says, Jesus came so that our sins would be forgiven–wiped out–obliterated, and so that we could be united with God forever.
Our response is obvious. Each time we approach the altar to take communion, Jesus offers Himself to us to take away our little sins and give us the grace to live His life. And so our prayer today, as we approach the altar, is the same as John’s. Christ must increase; we must decrease.