Homily for Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist 2007
Whenever I have had to move parish or house it has never been a simple thing. That is true for most people I think. For some people moving house is almost as traumatic as a death in the family. All the familiar things and ways are gone. And often friends are left behind. For me anyway, I have to make my impression on a place before I feel at home. It is only when I have all my bits and pieces in place and working that I feel I have arrived. We do depend so much on the familiar and the routine to be at peace.
So I am in awe of those people who can travel endlessly around the world seeking out new places and people and adventure. They live out of a suitcase or at least very simply. They never get in a rut except perhaps the rut of constant change.
Jesus and John the Baptist were like that. Both were prophets. Jesus an itinerant preacher who found shelter in the homes of those to whom he preached. John seems even more so an isolated individual spending much of his time in the wilderness. He had a few followers. John lived and died for the Torah, the Law of Moses. He did not die so much for Jesus' Gospel. He remained true to his own vocation.
Zechariah, John's father,was a priest who served in the great Temple in Jerusalem. He seems almost the opposite to John. He, like all in positions of authority especially in religion, knew well the traditions and customs which were to be observed. He knew the Law of Moses and served God faithfully. Priests like Zechariah and priests like me the custodians of the symbols and rituals of a culture. We tend to be institutional people in that role. Maybe precisely because of his priesthood he was unable to believe that God could say or ask anything different from what he already knew. So he doubted the message of the angel that he and his wife Elizabeth was to have a son in their old age. A son whom he should call John. The new name demanded indicated that his son was to be different.
People like Zechariah and church people in general have difficulty seeing out side the box of our comfortable knowledge and ritual. We are not sure about letting the Spirit enter into our lives and change us and our world. However, necessary that ritual and routine may be it should never become the be all and end all of what God can do.
John and Jesus were cousins. Apart from their meeting in the mothers' wombs when Mary visited Elizabeth and when John baptised Jesus, we do not know of any conversation between the two men. The reports in the Gospels are always that they communicated through their disciples. This emphasises the difference of vocation between the two. John the prophet of the Old covenant. Jesus the prophet of a New covenant.
John famously said about their relationship, "He must increase, I must decrease" (John 3:30). That is how the first Christians saw it too. Yet some of John's disciples continued to stay together long after John and Jesus had died (cf Acts 18:24-25). They remained only a small sect and eventually died out.
Any vocation is not just a once and for all thing. The Spirit continues to call us often in unexpected ways and directions. Faithfulness to God is not static. There is far more in God and in us than we could possibly imagine or find in any book bible or otherwise. The prophet Isaiah found this out as we hear in the first reading, "It is not enough for you to be my servant, .... I will make you the light of the nations" (Isaiah 49:6). God is always way ahead of us even when we think we have it all worked out. Love is always calling us on. And God is love.
Even when our world all seems to fall to pieces around us we must be prepared like John to hand our mission on to someone else. It is always beyond us we can only hand it on to Jesus in someone new. He must increase, I must decrease.