Today is June 24, the day on which The Christian Church honours the Birth of John the Baptist. The assigned Scripture readings burst with promise and excitement. The words in Isaiah 49:1-6 sound like those of a town herald proclaiming a message which will change lives. Luke’s account in Acts 13:22–26 is a concise summary of God’s saving work as evidenced in both the old (King David) and the new (Jesus as announced by John). The Gospel passage from Luke (1:57-66, 80) reports the birth of God’s herald John. St. Augustine of Hippo said: “John is born of an old woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. John is the hinge between the old and the new. Being born of the old, he also represents the new as John is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb.” Moreover, John’s birthday is celebrated close to the summer solstice, whereas Jesus’ birth is marked at the winter solstice, key times of seasonal change: “He must increase but I must decrease.”
The psalm today is one of the most loved, most quoted and best-known, Psalm 139. Its poetic flow and its message remain forever new, still stirring the very depths of human longing. Not only is God the Master-Knitter, putting us together in our mothers’ womb, but God remains intimately engaged minute by minute in each day of our lives. There is nowhere that God is not – that truth is both unsettling and immensely reassuring.
While the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) contain quite a few birth narratives, the New Testament features only two: John the Baptist and Jesus. Their lives, their destinies, their God-given missions were so intimately intertwined, even before they were born, that Luke sandwiches the account of John’s birth in the middle of his account on Jesus’ beginnings on earth. John’s birth is cause for double joy: one, Elizabeth’s barrenness has been removed, and two, God’s mercy is manifested in the dawning of the Messiah. Luke vividly describes the circumstances of both John’s and Jesus’ conceptions; both men meet one another while still in their mothers’ wombs. Their births are well documented and in both cases the naming turns out to be a significant moment, a moment at which their missions are revealed. So new is this moment that it leaves those around them wondering what will become of them. Both “grew and became strong in spirit,” says Luke.
“Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” says the priest concluding the Eucharist. We too are sent by God with a mission, the mission of proclaiming the Gospel with our lives — only use words if we must, as St. Francis is quoted as having said. How do we do this in today’s world?
Sometimes the movie industry offers a rare witness to make God’s point. For me, the movie Simon Birch embodied some salient features of a modern-day John the Baptist. Twelve-year-old Joe has been labeled a bastard; his mother Rebecca never revealed the identity of his father. She lavishes love and attention upon both Joe and his lonely best friend, Simon Birch. Now, Simon is a pint-sized runt of a thing who believes he has been put on earth as “God’s instrument.” This firm faith in his destiny enables Simon to endure the indifference of his parents, the ridicule of adults, and the relentless teasing of other children.
Simon is a “prophet” at the church he attends, much to the dismay of Reverend Russell and a high-strung Sunday School teacher. When Simon asks Reverend Russell “Do you believe that I have a special purpose?” the Reverend replies slowly, “That is something we would all like to believe, Simon.”
Despite the Reverend’s lack of reassurance, Simon keeps insisting naively that he is certain God has a plan for him. When Joe’s mother Rebecca is killed in a freak accident, Joe begins an earnest search to discover the identity of his father. He is assisted by Simon and Ben, his mother’s boyfriend. Meanwhile Simon turns the Christmas Nativity play into a ridiculous catastrophe. Finally, a few days later, Simon has a shining heroic moment when the Sunday school bus is in a serious accident.
Throughout the story, Simon keeps insisting that “God has made me the way I am for a reason” and “God has a plan for everyone.” Throughout the entire movie others discount his belief, suggesting to Simon not to “overdo” it. But in the end Joe recognizes that the little prophet was speaking the truth. How Joe discovered that – well, you’ll have to rent the movie.
There’s a shining moment waiting in all of our lives. I pray that John the Baptist’s witness, Jesus’ gift of self on the cross and in the Eucharist, along with Simon Birch’s story, may clarify the mission and purpose for which God formed each of us in our mother’s womb.
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