John the Baptist served as Jesus’ precursor, prophet and Baptist. He was the one sent by the Father to be Jesus’ forerunner to prepare the chosen people for the Advent of the Messiah. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets. He had the privilege of baptizing Jesus in the Jordan. In his selflessness, he said of Jesus, “He must increase while I must decrease.” He showed his zeal for the kingdom when he boldly told King Herod that it was not right for him (Herod) to have Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, while Philip was alive. He was so courageous to suffer imprisonment for being the voice of the God calling all to repentance. No doubt John Baptist did great things for God with such a selfless zeal.
John also gains the praises of Jesus in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus praises him, calling him a disciplined man who is not led astray by worldly currents, comforts or the luxuries of life. John is “more than a prophet” and “among those born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist.” Then Jesus adds, “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” In what way is the least in the kingdom of heaven greater than a man who has done such great things for God so faithfully and selflessly?
Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of heaven by His words, miraculous signs, and ultimately by His Passion, Death, Resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit. This kingdom is defined by two realities – a new and deeper relationship with God and a new value to all the things that we do and endure out of this new relationship. In this new relationship, God’s abiding grace gratuitously raises us to share in His divine life as His own adopted children in His Son Jesus. This new relationship with God also bestows a supernatural quality on all our actions, making them meritorious for us and others: “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of His grace.”(CCC 2008) Thus in and through this new unmerited relationship with God, our actions are also transformed and elevated such that we do not only share in the graces merited for us by Jesus, but we too, “moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, can merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”(CCC 2010)
Indeed we the members of the kingdom of heaven are greater than the faithful and zealous John the Baptist because of this new relationship with God and the supernatural value that this new relationship bestows on all that we do and endure. John had the ability to prepare the Israelites for the coming Messiah by bringing them to repentance. But in and through our new relationship with God in Jesus Christ, we can actually merit graces of sanctification and eternal life for ourselves and others. What gives meaning and value to our lives is not what we do or what we have or what others think of us. Our new relationship with God and the new values of our actions is what gives meaning to our lives as Christians.
What happens when we forget that we are in a new relationship with God that bestows immense value on all that we do and endure? We easily lose patience and begin to complain like the Christian recipients of St. James letter in today’s Second Reading. They cannot understand what is to be gained by their suffering as Christians and thus complaining sets in. St. James calls them to be “patient like the farmer who waits for the precious fruit of the earth.” The will indeed gain merit from the sufferings that they endure out of their new relationship with God if only they are patient and “make their hearts firm.” In their new relationship with God, all things have immense value if done and endured out of love for God.
Most importantly, when we forget that we are in this awesome new relationship with God as His adopted children capable of meriting graces of sanctification for us and others, the most important thing in our lives becomes what we do or what we have or what we enjoy. I was reminded of this a few months ago when I read that the famous German theologian Hans Kung was considering committing suicide because of his advanced age, possible signs of Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration. In his memoirs, he wrote, “I don’t want to continue to exist as a shadow of myself… I also don’t want to be sent off to a nursing home… If I have to decide, please abide by my wish… I am not tired of life, but tired of living… No person is obligated to suffer the unbearable as something sent from God… People can decide this for themselves and no priest, doctor or judge can stop them.”
These painful words from Kung’s memoirs show us how easy it is to define ourselves by what we do or what we achieve or what we have when we fail to realize that what really defines us as Christians is our new relationship with God through which all that we do and endure out of this relationship have redemptive value for us and for the members of the Kingdom of heaven. The sickness and the ageing process, painful as it may be, if embraced with love for God, is of immense value not because of what we do, but simply because of the merits of Christ that we now enjoy as members of the kingdom of heaven. Let us pray that this son of the Church will have a change of mind and follow the humble and faithful way that John Paul the Great of blessed memory showed us when he embraced his own pains of Parkinson’s till his last breath.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, what is it that gives meaning to our lives today? Jesus reminds us from the example of the Baptist that it is not so much what we do but our new relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In this time of the New Evangelization, when the focus has become making Christ known to others, let us not forget that we will only make Him known to the extent that we are growing in our union and friendship with God ourselves so that all the things that we do and endure out of love for Him have infinite value. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Jesus merited graces for us in all the moments of His earthly not so much because of what He did but because He was perfectly one with the Father and He was always moved by love alone. It is this same grace that filled the soul of Mary and allowed her to communicate graces to us her children. Because of her intimate union with the Triune God, the little things that Mary did and endured had immense value in sanctifying others as we see in her Visitation to her relative Elizabeth. Mary’s mere word of greeting made John leap in Elizabeth’s womb and filled Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit. This is what happens when we live in the new relationship that we have with God – everything we do and endure has immense value before God.
This same grace is poured into our hearts in this Eucharist. It is time to be greater than John the Baptist and bring meaning into our lives.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!