FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
USCCB link to all three readings
SATURDAY VIGIL MASS: JEREMIAH 1: 4-10 (or the Sunday reading may be used)
In the days of King Josiah, the word of the LORD came to me, saying:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.
"Ah, Lord GOD!" I said,
"I know not how to speak; I am too young."
But the LORD answered me,
Say not, "I am too young."
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them,
because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
Then the LORD extended his hand and touched my mouth, saying,
See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you
over nations and over kingdoms,
to root up and to tear down,
to destroy and to demolish,
to build and to plant.
SUNDAY FIRST READING: ISAIAH 49: 1-6
Hear me, O coastlands,
listen, O distant peoples.
The LORD called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
There are a few feasts in the Roman calendar that override the standard Sunday observance when these feasts fall on a Sunday. All Saints Day, All Souls Day, The Transfiguration (August 6) and the observance of John the Baptist all come to mind. The Baptist enjoys a preeminence in the observance of the saints. In the missal of my youth there were three feasts dedicated to John the Baptist: the vigil of his feast in purple vestments (June 23), the feast itself (June 24), and a separate observance of his martyrdom in red vestments on August 29. In 1970 the Missal dropped the separate day of vigil but maintained this June 24 feast we observe this weekend as well as the August 29 feast of his martyrdom.
John the Baptist is one of the most highly visible characters in the Gospels. Scholarship today continues to examine his origins, his relationship to the Old Testament prophets, his relationship to Jesus, and his impact upon the early Church. Jesus talked of him frequently after John’s martyrdom, challenging his enemies to say publicly whether “John’s baptism is of God.” That Jesus himself submitted to John’s baptism has been a point of some disquiet for some, to the point that the history is retold with high levels of factual certainty, for who of the evangelists would have invented a story highlighting Jesus’ subservience to John and his ritual of forgiveness of sin?
Defining John’s place in salvation in history is not easy. One can argue that he is the last great Old Testament prophet; one can also argue that the prophetic John is the first to announce the Kingdom of God in the fashion that Jesus would use in his own ministry. Although the two readings listed above come from different authors and times, they bear two common features: (1) that God preordains his special servants from their birth, or even in the womb; and (2) God works through his prophets, providing them with strength and success when all odds stack against them.
Did the Hebrew Scriptures cited here predict the coming of John? Jeremiah begins his prophecy around 627 B.C. and holds the record for the longest span of prophetic activity, 45 years. During that time, he would have preached during the final days before the Babylonian exile, when Israel’s kings failed to carry out the reforms required on them to keep the soul of the Covenant with God alive. After the punishments had befallen his people. Jeremiah turned his gaze to “the hope that God would eventually restore his people.” (Boadt, p. 327) But the idea of restoration is multifaceted. Jeremiah gives indications that he sees the power of Babylon as limited, like Egypt’s, and that a better day lie ahead for God’s chosen ones.
But Jeremiah’s later preaching is marked with a new moral stance. Israel had brought suffering upon itself by the ineffectiveness of its kings, whose primary failures boiled down to a failure to keep the Covenant delivered by Moses through the Law. It may have occurred to the prophet that the paradigm under which Israel lived and understood the Law needed a new theological expression. Again, to draw from Father Boadt, Jeremiah came to understand that the Law was not an objective rule carved in stone, but rather that the future would herald a writing of God’s moral commands on the heart of each believer with an accompanying grace of the Spirit to carry forth the personal living of God’s commandments.
Without losing its corporate identity, Israel was being introduced to a personal sense of morality, where fidelity was not the full provenance of the king but of every son and daughter of Abraham. Jeremiah did not live to see the end of the Babylonian Captivity, but if he had, he would have seen a resurgence of a personal responsibility for fidelity to the Law, to the point that Jews cast off wives of foreign descent and rejoiced at hearing the Word once more to the point of deep personal emotion, a post-Exilic time described in detail in the historical Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
It is not a coincidence that when John the Baptist began to preach and baptize along the Jordan, the crowds recognized him as prophetic, empowered by God’s spirit. John’s preaching cannot easily be connected to any branch of Judaism then in existence, but rather to a more universal call to personal holiness in the forgiveness of sins. St. Luke’s Gospel speaks of John’s words addressed to Roman soldiers as well as Jewish compatriots. The morality of John is highly personal in terms of accountability; he describes the judgment at the end of time as the separation of wheat from chaff, the latter burned in a great fire.
It is unlikely that Jeremiah, or for that matter the author of Isaiah in Sunday’s first reading, had the specific character of a John the Baptist in mind in either of Sunday’s readings. But, given that both Gospels for the weekend Masses speak of the conception and birth of the Baptist in terms of Hebrew history, metaphor, and expectations, it is more likely that as was common in the early Church, Christians identified the profound meaning of Jesus’ message and ministry by a “rereading” of the Hebrew Scripture. The same is true in the fashion that Christians came to understand the Baptist’s identity and role in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God fulfilled in Christ.