Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Man Whose Name was Grace

Today is the Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Today's gospel reading deals largely with his naming, in Mishnaic Hebrew יוחנן, or Johanan, which means God is gracious.

In biblical culture, names MEAN something. They are indicators of personality, descriptors of who we are. There's Adam, who was made from the earth, adamah. Abram, who became Abraham, was termed "Father of nations." Countless others have participated in the great Name Game: among them are Jacob/ Israel, and Saul/ Paul. The Revelation to the Apostle John speaks of the new name given to each Christian at his or her baptism. Until recent times, the baptized and/or professed religious were given a new or additonal name to symbolize her or his conversion of life. Of course, the most profound example of a name's meaning is our Lord Jesus, Yeshua, or "God will save."

But here we have Jesus' cousin, John, whose name had been given to his father the priest Zechariah by an angel. Echoes of the significance around John's naming appear in today's gospel:

Luke 1:57 - 80

"Meanwhile the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had shown her so great a kindness, they shared her joy.

Now on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother spoke up. ‘No,’ she said ‘he is to be called John.’ T hey said to her, ‘But no one in your family has that name’, and made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called. The father asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John’. And they were all astonished. At that instant his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God.

All their neighbours were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judaea. All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts. ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ they wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was with him."

What does this child turn out to be? To what graces does this last of the prophets, John, point us? At least two.

There's the grace of Repentance, about which he preached and which he illustrated by his life set apart in the wilderness. John's whole ministry, like his position between the old and new covenants, was a hinge point. Repentance is exactly that hinge point. It's the moment when we realize that we can't go it alone, that we NEED God to come and do for us what we can't do for ourselves. For twelve steppers, its admitting powerlessness over X and asking God to take control.

This grace leads us straight to John's second grace gift. John the Baptist understood Redemption. He said to his hearers, as he says to us "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." John points us to the source of redemption, Jesus. He keeps pointing us there each and every day of our lives. Jesus in the gospels, Jesus in the sacrament of baptism. Jesus in daily Eucharist. Jesus in Penance/ Reconciliation with God and with others.

In the Fourth Gospel we hear what the bottom line is for John. When he understands what is happening between him and Jesus, John quietly bows his head and finds his place in grace. He says those most grace filled words:

"He must increase, and I must decrease."

Our Holy Father Benedict XVI said this concerning John in today's Angelus message:

"As an authentic prophet, John bore witness to the truth without compromise. He denounced transgressions of God's commandments, even when the protagonists were people in power. Thus, when he accused Herod and Herodius of adultery, he paid for it with his life, sealing with martyrdom his service to Christ, who is the truth in person.

Let us call on his intercession together with that of Mary Most Holy so that the Church of our time will know how to be ever faithful to Christ and testify with courage to his truth and his love for all."

Grant this, Lord, to us all.

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