Friday, June 24, 2011

Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

(Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66.80)

As great a dramatist as William Shakespeare was, he could not have achieved such masterpieces as Prince Hamlet or King Lear without writers of comparable skill working at the same time. Shakespeare’s plots were deepened, his vocabulary was polished, and his characterization was developed by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kidd producing dramas in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England. To give a feel for his times, many teachers of Shakespeare require students to read a play by one of his lesser known but still quite talented contemporaries. Something similar may be said of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus.

As a preacher, John seems to have shaken ancient Israel. Although most of what is known about John comes from the four canonical gospels, he seems to have had an impact like few others. In fact, there is a religious sect today which claims John as its founder and leader in a way very similar to the way Christians view Jesus. Still the gospels see John as a foil to Jesus. That is, they relate his story as a way to highlight Jesus’ own. Luke tells us in today’s passage, for instance, that John is remarkably conceived by parents in old age. A bit later in his narrative he will show how Jesus is conceived even more miraculously by a virgin. In the fourth gospel, Jesus stands out more artfully. John’s disciples gravitate to Jesus, and John himself utters the humble yet lofty line, “He must increase; I must decrease.”

In a sense all Christians are foils of Jesus. Like him we can extend a hand to the downcast and provide bread for the hungry. But we recognize that we only imitate his goodness and that if there is anything about our actions that is truly unselfish, it is produced by his grace working in our hearts.