“What, then, will this child become?” That was the question asked at the birth of St. John the Baptist –today’s feast. That question must lie at the back of every parent’s mind as they gaze with wonder at their new-born babe. True, thousands of babies are born every day. Even so, each one is unique, special, not only to its parents, but especially to God. He has a different plan for each us, which no one else is called to fulfil.
The Church must consider the Birthday of John the Baptist to be extra special, since it takes precedence even over the Sunday liturgy. According to the Vatican Council that’s only supposed to happen on very important occasions. And there’s something else that’s extraordinary about today’s feast. Every other saint’s feast day celebrates his or her death, when the saint entered heaven. The Church only celebrates the birthdays of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist. He’s certainly in the most distinguished and illustrious company!
So what’s so exceptional about John the Baptist’s birth? Sometimes in the Old Testament, when God had a special task for someone, there was something unusual about his birth –a problem which God alone could solve. This was usually a question of the parents being unable to have children. We have the examples of Abraham and Sarah, through whose descendants God would fulfil His covenant. Then there are the mothers of Samuel and Samson; then there are the elderly parents of John the Baptist, and finally the Virgin Mary, the mother of our saviour. In each of these examples God specially intervened in the conception of those He had chosen for a very unique task.
So what was John the Baptist’s distinctive God-given role? Quite simply God chose him to go ahead to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ His vocation was to prepare people for God’s coming in judgement, and to call them to repentance. Only then would they be ready to receive the forgiveness which Christ alone could give. While John preached a baptism of repentance Jesus would preach a baptism of forgiveness.
And when Jesus did come John had two tasks to perform. Firstly, and surprisingly he baptised Jesus Himself, as the Lord identified with sinful humanity and took upon
Himself the burden of all our guilt –a burden which He would remove by His death on the cross. Next, while all the other prophets had foretold the coming of the Messiah, John the Baptist proclaimed, ‘There He is. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’
Luke’s Gospel tells us that John leapt for joy in his mother’s womb, at the presence of our unborn saviour. Even then John witnessed to Jesus. John witnessed to Christ not only by his preaching, but also, and especially by his martyrdom, which foreshadowed Christ’s crucifixion.
Such was John’s popularity that he could have tried to compete with Jesus, or might have resented being supplanted. But he was prepared to slip into the background after he’d completed his God-given mission. His guiding principle was, ‘He –Jesus –must increase. I must decrease.’
John marked the transition between the Old and New Testament. Like John the Baptist the Church and each of us, must prepare the way for the Lord to come into today’s world. As our words and deeds witness to Him, He must increase and we must decrease. Like John, we’re called to promote Jesus, not ourselves.
Finally, how do we respond to the question asked by the neighbours of the newly-born John the Baptist? “What will this child become?” What have we become? To what has God called us? It’s not too late to get back on course, if we’ve gone astray. After all repentance was a central part of John’s preaching.