“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son… His father asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” (Luke 1 : 57-66)
A good book
A very good book to read when you have time is The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It is the story of a monk, Brother Juniper, who having witnessed a rope bridge in Peru snapping and sending five people to their deaths at the bottom of a gorge, asks the question: “Why did this happen to those five?” Having been only moments away from crossing the bridge himself, he determines he must discover the reason for it. He says to himself :
Why did this happen to those five? If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and we die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.
So he decides to go back into the lives of these five people to discover some kind of trend, some kind of explanation. Do these things just happen, all a question of fate – being at the wrong place at the wrong moment? Or perhaps there is a divine justice which punishes the bad and lets the good triumph? Or perhaps God wants the just to go quickly to heaven and the bad to stay longer here on earth? Why do things happen? Why this mother in Houston kill all her five children? Why do I have this marriage breakdown, this sickness, this rebellious child, all these money problems, these fits of anger, this alcohol addiction? This is the kind of question that we cannot keep running away from. It will hit us one day or another.
A good man
John the Baptist is a help. He is the child of the impossible; he should never have been born. His father was Zachariah, a temple priest and his mother was Elizabeth, a cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She was not only ‘barren’ (Lk 1:7) but also well advanced in age. However an angel foretold his birth and even choose his name. John means “Yahweh is gracious, gentle, benevolent”. He is a Prophet, the forerunner of Jesus Christ, known as the Baptist because he baptized people as a outward sign of an internal renewal. Jesus Christ called him “the greatest of all those born of women” (cf Mat 11:11).
John is the result of a divine intervention. We also. One element in the jigsaw puzzle of life is the simple truth that none of us are here simply because mum and dad one day had a relationship. We are not simply the result of a decision our parents took. Neither are we here by chance. There is a bigger mind and a bigger heart behind our existence. The prophet Isaiah is so adamant about it : “The Lord formed me in the womb…”. He even says, “I am honored in the sight of the Lord.” And Psalm 139 is even more explicit : “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”. Whatever the circumstances surrounding our birth were, God was there. God wanted us. God made us.
Just today, June 24, (2001) in Ukraine the Pope spoke about John the Baptist in his homily at Kiev airport. He was so explicit : “God knew and loved us even before our eyes could contemplate the marvels of creation. At birth all men and women receive a human name. But even before that, each one has a divine name: the name by which God the Father knows and loves them from eternity and for eternity. This is true for everyone, with the exception of none. No one is nameless in God´s sight!”
A good father
And if God made us, then He must have made us for a good purpose. He is a Father, a good father. When I joined Carmel, we had a very beautiful custom. At the end of each day after Compline – the Night prayer – we would all kneel down at the entrance of our room, and the superior, an icon of God the Father, would approach us and bless us individually, touching slightly our heads as a sign of acceptance, a sign of forgiveness, a sign of love. It was just a reminder, an important and constant reminder, that we have a Father in heaven – someone who cares, someone who nurtures and cherishes us. Someone who accepts our weakness and helps us to rise to lofty heights.
Perhaps the problem for some of us is that we are living as if we are fatherless. We feel too much alone. We face our struggles and problems all alone. There is no one to tell us what is right and what is wrong, no one to tell us that we matter, that we are forgiven and cherished, no one to tell us that we are loved.
The name itself John screams this truth to us. God is gracious. God is benevolent. “God is benevolent to human beings: he wants them to live; he wants them to be saved. God is benevolent to his people: he wants to make of them a blessing for all the nations of the earth. God is benevolent to humanity: he guides its pilgrim way towards the land where peace and justice reign. All this is contained in that name: John!” (Pope in Ukraine, today)
John grew up to be so fearless because he knew that his life was enveloped in the love of a Father in heaven. Later on in life, he denounced the incestuous relationship of the governor Herod Antipas with his niece and brother’s wife, Herodias. He was beheaded for his guts. His courage cost him dearly but it made his life and the lives of many others meaningful. Because, yes, what makes life meaningful is love.
Because he was connected with God, he could connect with others. The book The Bridge of San Luis, finishes with this forceful sentence, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
And the Pope today in Kiev was saying : “Look today to John the Baptist, an enduring model of fidelity to God and his Law. John prepared the way for Christ by the testimony of his word and his life. Imitate him with docile and trusting generosity.
Saint John the Baptist is above all a model of faith. Following the example of the great Prophet Elijah, in order to listen more attentively to the word of the one Lord of his life, he leaves everything and withdraws to the desert, from which he would issue the resounding call to prepare the way of the Lord (cf. Mt 3:3 and parallels).
He is a model of humility, because to those who saw in him not only a Prophet, but the Messiah himself, he replied: “Who do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie” (Acts 13:25).
He is a model of uprightness and courage in defending the truth, for which he was prepared to pay in his person, even to the point of imprisonment and death.”
A good prayer
We are loved. So we are never alone. We can love. So others can never be alone. This is the whole meaning of our existence.
How many times, in moments when I saw nothing clear, when I felt down and felt like throwing the towel, this prayer of John Henry Cardinal Newman came to my mind and my lips :
“God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught, I shall do good, I shall do his work…
Therefore, I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me – still He knows what He is about.”
Thank you, God, for being such a good daddy.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.