We might notice something different about this Sunday's Mass. Instead of the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we have yet another solemnity. Instead of remembering the anniversary of a saint's death, we are celebrating his birth.
During the liturgical year, we celebrate only three birthdays: Our Lord's, Our Lady's and St. John the Baptist's. We might readily understand why we remember the birth of Jesus and Mary, but why do we give attention to the birth of John the Baptist?
The truth is John plays a very important part in the story of salvation history. He serves as the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Like the great prophets before him, John spoke about the Messiah to come. He, however, lived to see those prophecies fulfilled. He had the privilege of baptizing Our Lord in the Jordan, marking the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and the dawning of the Messianic age. It is John who points to Jesus and identifies him as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.
John the Baptist obviously had a big part to play in the mission of the Messiah, but it was not a task he took upon himself only when he had grown to be a big, strapping adult. He was consecrated, or set apart, for the task from the moment of his birth. There are some pretty remarkable similarities between the birth of the Baptist and that of his cousin. John's birth was announced by the Angel Gabriel. His name was given him by the angel, hence Zechariah's insistence that he be called John. Given the extraordinary events surrounding his life and his birth, considering his close link with the mission of the Messiah, it should no longer be a mystery why we celebrate his birth. It was truly a holy and wondrous event.
What might we learn from pondering the birth of the Baptist? What significance might these events have for us? The most obvious would be that we have yet another witness testifying to the truth of Jesus as the Messiah. There is nothing more significant to us than that. However, there is something else we might consider.
John was given a mission, a vocation, while still a mere babe. It would be many years before he would carry it out. He still would have needed help preparing for it. John would have needed his mother and father to help him learn about the faith of his ancestors, in coming to know of the God of Abraham and his relationship with the people of Israel. He would have needed someone to help him learn his prayers and all that the Scriptures contained. In other words, I imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth had an important part to play in helping their son discern what God was calling him to do.
If we firmly believe that God has a vocation, a plan, for each of our young children, they too are going to need help discerning that. The two most important teachers they will ever have in matters of the faith will be their own moms and dads. If a child is one day being called to marriage, his preparation will begin with what he sees in his own mom and dad. What will he learn from them about being people of prayer? How will he see them express their love and affection for one another? How will he see them communicate with each other? Does he understand that marriage is a vocation, a calling from God and a path to holiness?
If a young man or woman is called to the priesthood or religious life, do they have the encouragement and support of their families? My own knowledge of the faith came partly from my experience in a Catholic elementary school, but especially through my family's very active participation in the worship and life of the Church. That is what truly provided the seedbed for my own vocation, and I am thankful to my mom and dad, God rest his soul, for providing their love and support as I pursued that vocation. We will not overcome the low number of vocations through special programs, but only when parents are willing to give to God their sons and daughters to serve Him in the priesthood and religious life. If God is calling some of our youth to serve Him in a religious vocation, it would be a serious matter for us to stand in His way. If someone expresses a desire to serve Him, how sad it would be if we turned him or her off.
John the Baptist was given a great mission, but I am sure he needed help carrying it out. If we firmly believe God has a vocation for each of our children, we need to help them prepare for it, too.