24 June 2018
Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist
Today’s feast is one of the few that overrides a usual Sunday. And that’s because the birth of John the Baptist (and his ministry) plays such a crucial role in God’s plan. Without John the Baptist, who would’ve said to the people, “Behold, the Lamb of God”? Who would’ve directed people to Jesus?
Even today, the birth of John the Baptist points us forward. He was born six months before Jesus, and so here at the end of June, we’re directed toward Christmas already. Everything about John directs us to Jesus: his birth, his life, his preaching. Jesus couldn’t very well just show up one day and say, “Well, here I am!” He needed someone to “prepare the way” so people could recognize him. And that person was John the Baptist.
Now, if John were sent into today’s world, he would have an uphill challenge. The “religious sense” among people is pretty low (at least, in the western world). People aren’t necessarily looking for a savior or a messiah. They’re not looking to the heavens for an answer to their problems; they’re not even sure the heavens exist.
But, of course, there are still plenty of people who do believe; people who are waiting for Jesus, looking for him. And there are plenty who are looking for Jesus, but don’t know it—kind of like the ancient Greeks who had a temple in honor of an “unknown god.” Well, we know who he is, and we know his name, too. Only today, instead of John the Baptist pointing him out, there’s the Church who says, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
Of course, we hear that phrase at every Mass: “Behold, the Lamb of God; behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” And we hear that in reference to the Eucharist. But we could say it refers to all the sacraments, too: “Behold, the Lamb of God;” there he is, sharing his grace with those who want it. Holy Oil, water, the Laying on of Hands, wedding vows, confessions...”Behold, the Lamb of God.”
Then there’s all the people who make up the Church: the clergy, consecrated brothers and sisters, men, women, children, married, single, the Saints. How many of them can we point to and see, “There’s the Lamb of God; there’s Jesus. There’s somebody showing concern for the stranger; there’s another person teaching the kids how to live well and have faith in God; and there’s somebody else getting out the whip, telling injustice and unkindness to take a hike.”
The sacraments, the people...the Church points to them and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God; behold Jesus at work.” She also points to all the wisdom and teachings that’ve come down to us through the ages (even the knowledge that comes from science). She points to the truth of things and says, “Behold, there’s Jesus; there’s God.” She points to humility, to those virtues of faith, hope, and love; she points to peace among people of goodwill and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God; behold Jesus.”
Sacraments, people, the virtues, knowledge, truth, goodness...Jesus is there in all of it. And he’s other places, too, like: our conscience, in the beauty and mystery of creation, and especially in the human heart. The Church points to all these (and more) and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God. Behold Jesus our life, our salvation, our hope and joy.”
But, you know, when John the Baptist did that, people didn’t immediately realize, “Oh, there’s Jesus; he’s the Son of God!” When John pointed him out, all people saw was another human being. During Mass, when the priest says, “Behold the Lamb of God,” all we see is a chalice and a little round wafer. Or when the Church points out a teaching, all we might see is just another law we have to follow. These things don’t immediately strike us being anything extraordinary.
But that’s where that phrase comes in: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Behold. There’s more there than meets the eye. It takes practice to notice Jesus hidden behind those things. Again, when John pointed Jesus out to others, all they saw was another human being. They didn’t realize he was God in the flesh. Even the Apostles took a while to realize that—and Jesus had to die and rise from the dead for them to fully understand it.
It takes practice to recognize Jesus—even when he’s pointed out to us, because Jesus is most often hidden. It’s kind of like those “Where’s Waldo” books (if you remember those). You know he’s somewhere on that page, and you’re not going to give up until you find him! We know Jesus is there, but he’s not always obvious. It takes practice to see him. And, you know, this does make it difficult to have a more “personal relationship” with him.
We so often hear about having that “personal relationship” with Jesus. And, really, that’s what John the Baptist encourages us to have. He said, “Behold the Lamb,” and then he sent his disciples to Jesus himself to get to know him and follow him. So a “personal relationship” with the Lord is part of what we’re about. But it can also be discouraging to realize “I don’t have that,” or “I have no idea what that means.” And to top it off, the one I’m supposed to have a “personal relationship” always seems to be hiding!
Well, to start, the idea of this “personal relationship” is that it’s simply one person sharing life with another person—it’s between two living persons. But one of those persons (Jesus) lives within the other person (among other places, too). And so, in sharing with Jesus, it feels like sharing with...yourself. And when Jesus shares with you, it feels like it comes from...within (the soul, the mind). The Jesus we’re trying to be “personal” with is hidden, but he’s hidden within us (among other places, too).
And this is why Jesus says, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray in secret.” Jesus is hidden, but he’s very close. I remember when I first started praying, it felt weird. And, frankly, I felt kind of silly—there was nobody else there, just me. There I was, talking to...nothing. But I was determined to see what would happen. So I kept it up for (I don’t remember) a week or so; just a few minutes each day.
And what happened is that in trying to speak with Jesus, I ended up becoming very honest with myself. And then I realized that it wasn’t Jesus who was hiding from me, it was me who was hiding from Jesus. And that’s when the sharing of life began. That’s when that “personal relationship” started. It’s also when the Mass became meaningful, when the Church’s teaching took on a different flavor, when life became more of a gift than a trial, when my religious imagination took off. It started when I stopped hiding from Jesus.
Now, that doesn’t mean everything’s been perfect since. I still find myself hiding from Jesus, reminding myself not to do that. I still have to practice to see Jesus with the eyes of faith—to see him in the sacraments, in other people, in the Church, in creation, in the world. I still have to practice my “beholding the Lamb of God.” And I’ll have to—we’ll each have to—practice until someday we’ll behold the Lamb of God fully in heaven.
It takes practice to recognize Jesus, even when he’s pointed out to us. But he is there. “Behold, the Lamb of God” especially within yourself. He’s there...hiding, waiting for you to not hide from him.