Luke 1:57-66, 80, Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist
Oscar Wilde tells the parable of a supercilious rocket so enamored with his pedigree and potential that he shed copious tears while talking about himself. Alas, his tears dampened his gunpowder. When his time came to be lit, he was too wet and so was set aside.
In our first reading today, Isaiah proclaims that the Lord made him like a sharp-edged sword or a polished arrow (Isaiah 49:2). This sentiment is echoed in our responsorial psalm: “I am wonderfully made!” If we are to apply these words to ourselves, we also have to ask, “But why did God make me so wonderfully? Why did God gift me with so much? What are my blessings for?”
The sharp-edged sword must be ready to be drawn out of its scabbard; the polished arrow must be prepared to be pulled out of its quiver. Isaiah is given his mission: “You are my servant… through whom I show my glory.” If we are wonderfully made, it is not to brag about it as the super silly rocket did. We are wonderfully made in order that we may serve the Lord. We are wonderfully made not for our own but for God’s glory. If we think otherwise, then we will go out not with a bang but with a whimper, as Oscar Wilde’s rocket did.
Today is the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist – such a lofty way of saying we are remembering someone’s birthday. Our feast becomes loftier still when we consider that the only other births commemorated in the Church calendar, aside from Jesus’, are the Blessed Virgin Mary’s and John’s. Derived from the Hebrew Yochanan, the name John means God is gracious. Why is God so gracious to John the Baptist? Some people may object and point out that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded. How can this be a sign of God’s graciousness? But if you ask the Baptist, I am certain he will say, “My name is John. God has indeed graced me beyond beyond.” Why did God bless John so much?
One work of art I have only heard of but dream of seeing one day depicts John the Baptist pointing with an abnormally long index finger. When the artist was criticized about this error in proportion, he defended himself by saying that he intentionally elongated John’s pointer finger. After all, this was the Baptist’s vocation – to point to the Christ. John had appeared earlier in the scene. He had amassed followers before Jesus even began his ministry. Yet when the Baptist saw the Lord, John told his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God….” And his disciples left him and followed Jesus (see John 1:29-37). John, the one who claimed he was not worthy to untie the strap of Jesus’ sandals, found complete joy in saying, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). God blessed John, and John used his blessings to glorify God. This, I think, was also John’s greatest blessing.
How do you use your blessings?
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Maban, South Sudan ministers to the people fleeing the violence in the Blue Nile region and gives special attention to the elderly and the disabled – the last and the least among the evacuees. One of the refugees I was blessed to have met while I worked with JRS was Mahmoud. The first time I visited his hut, I could not stop staring at his severely deformed foot. He told me that he was caught in the crossfire between rebel soldiers and forces loyal to the government in the 1990s. A bullet had lodged itself in his foot, but it was the surgery after that mangled flesh and bone and left him unable to walk without pain.
But I was not there for Mahmoud. The main purpose of my visit was to check up on his teenaged daughter who was born with cerebral palsy. Piecing his story together and doing the math in my head, I guessed that his daughter was around ten when they escaped from the Blue Nile and trekked the arduous road to Maban. How was he able to transport his daughter who could not even stand up?
He answered me simply, “I carried her.” Incredulous, I asked, “With your bad foot?” And he told me about his incredible faith journey.
He began by saying how much God had blessed him. That already floored me. Here was a disabled refugee who had to leave everything behind because of war, a father whose daughter will always be dependent on him, telling me that God had been so generous to him. Mahmoud continued, “God is so good to me. How can I not try to share with my daughter the same goodness? God has never abandoned me. How can I ever leave my daughter behind?” Not only did Mahmoud see blessing where others would only see curse; Mahmoud saw that his blessing was not for him alone.
We may have our own personal imprisonments and beheadings like John the Baptist, but if Mahmoud could look at his life and be grateful for his blessings, then whatever we are going through, we must still try to see how gracious God has been to us. And what shall we do with the gifts we find? As Mahmoud did for his daughter, we use them to bless others. As John the Baptist did, we use them to point others to God – as Mahmoud also did for me.
I usually change the names of the people whose stories I share, but as I could not stop staring at his foot, I also cannot stop saying Mahmoud’s name. It is a great reminder for me of what to do with God’s graciousness to me. In Arabic, Mahmoud comes from the same root as the word praise. Uprooted by war, with almost nothing to his name but his mangled foot and disabled daughter, Mahmoud was still grateful for his blessings, shared them, and lived praising the God who gave them.
*painting by Leonardo da Vinci is in the Louvre