Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fr. James's Sunday Homily

Be a Witness
A number of years ago I was invited to give a retreat to a group of lay people in New York City. A seminarian graciously accompanied me in order to help with the practical details. Prior to the evening retreat, we had a number of appointments, and so that meant that we would have lunch in New York. The seminarian really enjoyed Asian cuisine, so I accommodated his palate by inviting him to lunch at a Korean restaurant.
As we went to our table, we were met by a Korean woman who graciously attended us with delicate courtesy. Having had many years of experience at my father's restaurant, I was able to notice that her kindness, manners, and spirit of service were far from ordinary.
Towards the end of the meal, another Korean woman finished waiting on our table. When we were ready, I asked her for the check. She then proceeded to tell me that there would be no charge for the lunch because the first waitress took care of the bill. I was very surprised and I asked her why she had decided to pay for our meal. "She is Christian", was the unanticipated answer from the waitress.
"She is Christian", meant that all the other waitresses were not Christian, and that all though encountering a free meal in the middle of downtown New York City surprised me, they were not surprised at all. They knew that this woman was different. Because of her Christianity, she was different.
This is just one example of what it means to be a witness. The Korean woman, through her profound generosity, gave an amazing witness to all of her co-workers. She is Christian.
Why is an obscure figure of the Bible relevant for us today? Why does the Catholic Church present John the Baptist for our reflection?

St. John the Baptist commands our interest because he is a witness. By his witness, he reminds us that we are called to be witnesses. And in any age, to be a witness is challenging.

When John baptized the multitudes on the banks of the Jordan, we must realize that John was not the only one baptizing and preaching. Baptism rituals even took place at the monastery of Qumran. However, there was something different about John the Baptist. There was something unique about his preaching and his baptism.

The witness of John the Baptist begins with his birth. The miraculous circumstances of his conception and birth direct our attention to the mysterious and transcendent. An angel announces his birth to a woman well beyond childbearing years. His father is struck dumb for his disbelief. As an infant, John, leaps in his mother's womb when he is in the presence of the Messiah's mother. Upon his birth, he is given not his father's name, but rather the name, John, which translates "Yahweh is gracious". With the giving of this name spoken by the angel, John's father, Zechariah, recovers his power of speech. Thus the miraculous circumstances surrounding his beginnings give witness to a sacred world, a world reaching beyond time and space.

Modern man needs to experience the transcendent. He needs to understand with his heart that there is much more to our earthly existence than the here, the now, the material, and the secular. Our experience of the beauty of the Catholic Mass should bring about this necessary encounter. If life is restricted to only what we can see, touch, make, and do, then we run the risk of leaving God out of our lives altogether. Sunday worship could become simply a shallow social gathering of the community rather than a profound, life changing transcendent experience of mystery and redemption.

As an adult, John’s chosen surroundings bear witness to a different reality. He is a man of the desert. He totally separates himself from the world in order to give testimony of another world. Within his solitude he is able to hear the voice of God. Between the center of Judea and the Dead Sea exists one of the most austere deserts of the world. John the Baptist made this place his home. His home is a testimony of what our souls must be in order to listen to God and to possess him. Our journey during this Advent should bring about a deeper detachment from earthly creatures so that we may come closer to God. Detachment from material things is so important if we wish to truly experience the presence of God in our lives.

Moreover, John's manner of dressing bears witness as well. He does not clothe himself in the garments of the leaders of his day. And just as his location is counter-culture, going against the prevailing wisdom of his day, so also is his dress. Through his garment of camel's hair, John shows how important it is to be simple and detached from the things of this world. Riches make a soul soft and incapable of the rigorous walk of faith. Obsession with the latest fad clouds our minds and prevents us from focusing on the things that are really important.

John's food also bears witness. The gospels tell us that he eats locusts and wild honey. Like his living conditions and his dress, his food is also simple. People cannot resist a witness like John. Many people provide messages that they themselves do not live up to. But John not only preaches a message, he is the message. Because his beliefs and his actions are one and the same, people listen to what he says. He is an authentic witness because he himself is authentic.

John's preaching is a witness of the truth. His message is effective because he is completely empty of himself. He does not preach himself. He points to someone beyond himself. “I am baptizing you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (Matthew 3: 11). Like Paul who comes after him, John is completely lost in the One whom he proclaims. For this very reason Jesus cries out to the crowds: "I tell you, of all the children born to women, there is no one greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he" (Luke 7: 28).

John, the great witness, preaches the truth of Christ to the massive crowds of people that listen to him. These are people who are hungry for the truth. They are tired of the burdens imposed upon them by their own leaders, the Pharisees, and the foreign leaders represented by King Herod. The human soul cannot be kept locked up in the body by repressive systems that continue to lie. Despite the many difficulties that confront the modern world, more and more people are breaking away from the bonds created by sin, materialism, and secularism, and are actually living out truly spiritual lives.

To those seeking the baptism that John offers the people in the waters of the Jordan, God gives the multitudes an opportunity to repent of their sins. John's baptism is a testimony of the baptism that will eventually come through Jesus Christ. "A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths'“(Matthew 3: 3).

John's ultimate witness comes in his death. John is a man who is one with his mission and his message. His is incapable of denying either one. In any age the truth will always meet opposition. Jesus makes this very clear to those wishing to be his disciples. In any age, there are those who hear only what they want to hear. In any age, there are those who will do any thing in order to continue living a lie – even kill. King Herod personifies those human beings who from the beginning of time until the end of time, choose to live a lie, rather than the truth. From the depths of the dungeon, John's martyrdom is a testimony that every disciple of Jesus must persevere.

“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15: 5-6).

St. John the Baptist, a difficult personage of the Bible to understand and perhaps even to relate to, is very relevant for us today. He is a great witness precisely because he is the link between the Old and New Testaments. He is the last of the prophets who announces the coming of the Messiah. He is the first of the disciples who proclaims his coming: "Behold, there is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1: 29).

John the Baptist is still relevant for us because as in any age, our age has an urgent need for disciples like John the Baptist. Our world has an urgent need for witnesses.

We must witness that our identity is centered on true spirituality, and that our morality derives from that spirituality. We must witness that our faith challenges many of the values of the dominant secular culture. We must witness that our traditions have great meaning for us. We must witness that challenging commitments offer firm principles by which we may live our lives. We must witness that adherence to traditional morality often comes at a considerable personal cost: perhaps of losing family, friends, even jobs. We must witness that what we have found in Christ Jesus is true, real and worth living out to the ultimate consequence. We must witness that our seeking solely for lasting happiness as the meaning of life is an indictment of the falsehoods of past generations. We must witness by striving for personal holiness, authenticity and integration. Witness has no room for complacency, hypocrisy, or self-indulgence.

“For all Christians, wherever they live, are bound to show forth, by the example of their lives and by the witness of the word, that new man put on at baptism and that power of the Holy Spirit by which they have been strengthened at Conformation. Thus other men, observing their good works, can glorify the Father and can perceive more fully the real meaning of human life and the universal bond of the community of mankind” (Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes Divinitus, 11).

No comments: