The following homily was give by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on June 24, the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.
As we gather to celebrate the sacred liturgy, we immediately notice that something is different. The focus of our liturgy is St. John the Baptist; in fact, the liturgy commemorates his birth. Within the liturgical year, only three birthdays are celebrated: those of Our Blessed Lord, of Our Blessed Mother and of St. John the Baptist. (On August 29, we celebrate the martyrdom and death of St. John the Baptist.) Why does the Church celebrate St. John the Baptist's birth? The Catechism of the Catholic Church replies: "John surpasses all the prophets, of whom he is the last…" (No. 523).
So then, what lessons for our daily Christian living can we learn — or relearn — from today's celebration of St. John the Baptist's birth? The fundamental lesson is this: each one of us is to make the Lord Jesus known to others, as John the Baptist did. After all, we are members of the Church, the Body of Christ. The Church's primary goal is to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord and to lead all people to this Jesus, the One Savior of the world. Whatever our individual vocation within the Church, indeed, precisely within that specific vocation, you and I are to make the Lord Jesus known, so that encountering this Jesus, people may love Him, serve Him and live with His very life now and for all eternity!
St. John the Baptist is an encouraging and, in some ways, a challenging model for each one of us in this fundamental responsibility to make the Lord Jesus known. Let us reflect on how he is, in fact, a real model for us.
St. John the Baptist was called from birth to be the precursor of the Savior, God's messenger and servant. We heard in today's first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah: "The Lord called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name. … You are my servant, he said to me … through whom I show my glory." We too are chosen and called at our baptism. Born again through water and the Holy Spirit, we were inserted into Christ and became members of His Body the Church. As members of His Body, we are given the mandate which Christ speaks: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. …" (Mt 28:19-20). Later, at confirmation, we were anointed more fully with the Holy Spirit for precisely this task: to make the Lord Jesus known.
St. John the Baptist prepared for his mission to make the Lord Jesus known. As we heard in today's gospel account from St. Luke, "The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel." During those long years in the desert, St. John the Baptist prepared for the beginning of his mission, "his manifestation to Israel." We too have prepared and continue to prepare for our primary mission to make the Lord Jesus known. How? By deepening our union with the Lord Jesus through daily prayer, acts of self-denial and sacramental celebrations, especially penance and the Holy Eucharist. After all, how can we make the Lord Jesus known if we ourselves do not know Him personally and share His very life ever more deeply? We also prepare by our union with the Church, which is Christ's Body: the visible one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Christ and the Church can never be separated. We are in union with both or we are not in union at all! Moreover, we continue being prepared and equipped for our mission by increasing our understanding of who Christ is and what He teaches through the Church. So, ongoing Christian formation is part and parcel of our daily Christian journey. Yes, we must go beyond the Catholic school and the CCD program; we must continue to learn, to reflect, to grow in our knowledge of our rich Catholic faith. All sorts of ways to do this are available to us, for example, books, like The Catechism of the Catholic Church, The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI; presentations at parish adult-education programs; video and tapes from Catholic sources; to name but several. Like St. John the Baptist, we must continually be equipped for our mission.
St. John the Baptist then actually witnessed by his preaching and by his lifestyle. As St. Paul reminded us in today's second reading from the Acts of the Apostles, "John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. …" We too witness within the specific vocation we are living: within marriage and the family or within the priesthood or the diaconate or the consecrated life or the single chaste life. We witness in the neighborhood, the workplace, the parish, the community.
Let me briefly point to a tangible arena for our Christian witness, thereby making the Lord Jesus known as the Way, the Truth and the Life. We witness by the clothing we wear. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Does our clothing reflect our understanding of who we are: persons with dignity and deserving of respect? Is the clothing we wear suitable to the place where we are? In church, for example, our clothing need not be fancy or new or expensive or, in warm weather, very formal, but it should show that we realize that we are in the Lord's House, in a sacred place. In the workplace and, yes, even at the beach or a picnic, our clothing, while casual, should also be modest. No, we are not to imitate St. John the Baptist in his choice of clothing, that is, a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt (Mt. 3:4), but our clothing should symbolize that we belong to Christ.
Lastly, St. John the Baptist lived and witnessed so that Christ could be seen and known, not him. John was not the focal point, Christ was! As he himself said, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). So too with us. Our witness must not be about us, but about Christ. We need to disappear so that the Lord Jesus can be known clearly and completely.
Yes, we learn much from St. John the Baptist, whatever our individual vocation. We learn within the specific vocation that is ours to make the Lord Jesus known to others through our witness of life above all, and, to paraphrase St. Francis of Assisi, also when necessary through our words. Listen! St. John the Baptist is telling us: "Go forth! Make the Lord Jesus known every day until the day you see Him, as I now do, face to face forever!"