JUNE 24, 2005- NATIVITY OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST: IS 49:1-6; ACTS 13:22-26; LUKE  1: 57-66,80

A VOICE CRIES IN THE DESERT , ‘PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATHS’. Holy Scripture is filled with mysteries. Some surpass intrinsically the laws of nature and the powers of human reason, such as the Incarnation of the Word of God and the Blessed Trinity. Were they not revealed y a special dispensation and mercy of God, they would remain totally unknown, even unsuspected. Others are only apparent; when careful investigation discovers new historical facts, or obtains fresh understanding of literary forms what had for centuries seemed beyond human understanding or natural explanation assumes a character that admits of more ready apprehension.

The birth of John the Baptist and the events surrounding his early years include both kinds of mystery and variations of both at that. First of all, John is conceived as a result of a divine intervention. An angel announces his coming birth, predicts his greatness, assigns his name as an indication that his person is a pledge of God’s graciousness, declares his holiness even from the womb, gives assurance of the dominance of the Holy Spirit in his life and finally orders that he follows an austere regime of life. He is to be, the angel further states, another Elijah, filled with prophetic zeal and driven by a special mission to prepare the people for God’s purpose. Later on Jesus would refer to John’s birth as singularly graced: "Of all men born of woman none is greater than the prophet John the Baptist."

Zachary, who received this message, had serious misgivings; he was a good man of honorable station and long experience of life. Failure to produce a child after many years of marriage to a virtuous and faithful wife had worn down his expectations, even made him somewhat skeptical; age has a way of making one more realistic, less imaginative and reduces hopes for this life. But the Lord had high matters in hand and made proportionately heavy demands. Withholding belief in the angel’s message Zachary is struck dumb. Only when he obediently names the child John does he recover his speech and use his voice to praise God in words that we sing every day at Lauds.

Not without significance is the narrative of John’s birth marked by a striking emphasis on speech and the word, for this child is destined to be a prophet and the greatest of prophets. Isaiah had predicted his mission in the words cited above: A VOICE CRIES IN THE DESERT , ‘PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATHS.’ John is so identified with his vocation to preach the coming of the Savior that he is referred to simply as "A Voice." He is wholly taken up into God’s plan. Forgetting his own interests he speaks only on behalf of the all-holy One who called him from the womb. He spoke with compassion for the confused and sin-ridden people who came to hear his words; with great freedom of speech he accused the powerful who transgressed the law and gave bad example. Fidelity to his vocation as the voice of God cost him his life in the end, but only made his message heard with greater and lasting effect. Even in death his reputation for honesty and courage remained as a threat to Herod who feared John had returned to life in the person of Jesus.

John’s role as cleansing the hearts of those who were to hear the teaching of the One whose way he prepared was recognized to continue in the Church even after his death. The early monks took John as a model; his call for a change of heart (this is a more faithful translation of ‘metanoia’ than ‘repentance’) was considered to set the program for monastic life. Further reflection based on experience revealed the concrete obstacles, chiefly in the form of the various passionate thoughts, invariably encountered in the process of effecting this inner change. In order effectively to free one self from these persistent and subtle forces, these passions were carefully observed and analyzed. The combined wisdom of various men of large experience and persevering prayer evolved a strategy for overcoming them. Thus the monastic tradition was elaborated over time first in Egypt and soon transmitted to the West. St Benedict early on and later the early Cistercians formed their spirituality guided by this desert wisdom which continued to be rooted in the preaching of John the Baptist. Only a change of heart amounting to a transformation of the inner person is the appropriate manner to prepare the way of the Lord. This way passes through a desert that tests resolve, but the Spirit aids our weakness. For it is the way of the Lord that leads to the kingdom and that heavenly city where God is all in all. May be travel that way to the end in the strength of the Eucharistic food we receive at this holy altar.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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