St John the Baptist
There is a great joy at St John’s birth. There is – or there should always be – a great joy when a new child is born. But we feel from the text of the Gospel the special joy everyone felt on that occasion. All had compassion for Elizabeth and Zechariah who could not have children. They were good people, much loved by their relations, friends and neighbours. All felt so sorry for them. But now, this was over. God had shown His mercy to them as He had done to great figures of the past: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, and many others. The joy was palpably also a religious joy: some sort of obscure curse was reversed; a blessing was bestowed and a fullness of life was given; moreover, this birth was a sign given by God: a new era of salvation was dawning.
Joy goes with life: life received, life given, life enjoyed as a gift, which implies some form of celebration. The sunset is beautiful and can be moving; it becomes a joy when we receive it as a gift of gratuitous beauty, and when we recognise the loving hand of our Creator; our joy bursts out in praise and thanksgiving.
John was a gift of God, and this is what his name means. People wanted to call him as his father was called, or at least with a name already common in the family. But both his mother and his father were adamant: “His name is John” – in Hebrew: Johannan, which translates: God is gracious; a gift of grace is given by God. They were all surprised. There was definitely something special, something new, some sort of new beginning happening.
John is a gift of God for us, too. Not only because he is a miraculous baby, but chiefly because his mission puts him in such a close relationship with Jesus that, in a sense, we always meet him when we approach Jesus. The Church has summarised this mission in one word: John was the “forerunner”. He ran ahead of Jesus, he prepared the way for Him and he designated Him as the Messiah. John came first, and that makes him the patron saint of preparations – especially, the preparation to religious life, what we call the novitiate; very fittingly, St John is the patron of our novitiate.
John the Precursor teaches us how to meet with Jesus and to put our entire life to His service. We may be more familiar with turning to Our Lady, or taking St Joseph as a model. The liturgy points also in the direction of John. He is a model of discipleship. Here we think of John’s humility. ‘Go to Jesus with courage and simplicity; but above all, go to Him with humility. Do not pretend that you know, that you can, that you are more than what you really are. He knows you perfectly well. He knows you, in a sense, better than yourself.’ When Jesus calls us personally to follow Him, our reaction should not be: “Congratulations. You made a good choice. You picked a good one.”, but rather: “Who am I that You come to me? Who am I that You choose me?”
When Jesus comes to him, John recoils out of humility. But when Jesus insists that John baptise Him, John obeys with simplicity. This obedience is a further sign of humility which can inspire our monastic obedience. St Benedict has a beautiful chapter for the situations when obedience seems difficult or even impossible. You are invited to put your case to your superior with openness, simplicity and patience; but once the final decision is made, the monk understands that he has to obey “out of love, trusting the help of God’s grace”. Each time we do that, we experience a great freedom, and God’s grace is never missing.
John’s way was not an easy one. He preached with enthusiasm, he had a big success and an immense joy at designating Jesus as the Lamb of God. But afterwards, the Gospels suggest he underwent a period when things were not so clear: he had questions; he did not doubt his own mission, but he was a bit puzzled by Jesus’ behaviour; things were taking a direction he had not anticipated; his vision of how God is working had to evolve. He remained firm in his faith and courageous in his ministry. He generously paid the price of imprisonment and martyrdom.
This, again, is a great lesson for us: after a time of joyful discovery when we grow in certitude and feel confirmed in our vocation, there often comes a period when we feel unsettled. We may even be led to question God’s action in our lives: what is He doing? Where is He leading me? The beautiful promises seem to have vanished; the daily reality looks dull and unspectacular. We are left with God alone, although we do not necessarily feel His presence. We have to say Yes to Jesus alone, out of faith, as if in the night, independently of His gifts and of the benefits we can get from the relationship with Him. This Yes brings with itself a great joy because it frees us from what is secondary and focusses our lives on the central reality of Christ.
Here again with have the image of St John. He is often depicted with one finger pointing to Jesus. Isn’t this also part of our vocation? We, too, find our joy in living a life which points to Christ. A monastery is a great signal in our world, a “finger” in the direction of Christ. Monks are not very interesting in themselves; what matters is the One to whom they try to give witness by their entire life
Novices, monks, Christians, we all need the humble presence of St John the Baptist in our lives. He is the one always ready to remind us: ‘Why don’t you look in the direction of Christ?’ Go to Christ. Believe in Christ. Hope in His grace. Do not hesitate to open to Him your whole heart, to give Him your whole life.’
Abbot Xavier Perrin