Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Birth of John the Baptist

Esteban Murillo - Jesus and John the Baptist
There are three paintings that depict a young St John the Baptist which are favorites of mine for different reasons. They are all by the Spanish painter Esteban Bartolome’ Murillo and they show John the Baptist as a little boy, John always being accompanied by a little lamb, symbolizing his famous words “Behold the Lamb of God,” the phrase he used to welcome Jesus when he came to the Jordan River to be baptized by him. The other two paintings are of John by himself, one of them with a pondering look, while the other shows him in a remorseful or apologetic mood, again both of them with the lamb next to him. Today the Catholic Church celebrates his birth, and that is why we use the color white in our vestments. John is regarded as the last prophet of the Old Testament, while some refer to him as the first martyr of the New Testament, and we do have a commemoration of his martyrdom on August 29, but it’s his mysterious birth that is celebrated today, since Elizabeth his mother was advanced in age.
Esteban Murillo - John the Baptist as a child
When a baby is born here in the USA, the announcement is made in the papers, Godparents chosen, the baptism is held and a party usually follows. In John’s time, his birth was announced in a very unusual way. Similar to what the Native Indians did when sending a message, his father Zechariah made a bon-fire and lit it in the evening, so that his relatives and friends would know that Elizabeth gave birth to her baby. This is actually a tradition that is still held in many countries, among them Malta. Many towns and villages collect wood, sticks and logs for a few weeks and pile them up, and on the evening of June 23, they light this bon-fire, in commemoration of the birth of John. Some towns and villages compete as to who can make the biggest bon-fire. With the fire restrictions here in the USA, this custom will never be given the go ahead, but it is a meaningful tradition nonetheless.
Murillo - John the Baptist as a young boy
John the Baptist as a prophet had a tough role to play - to point out the sins which were keeping the people from truly knowing, loving and serving God. He prepared the way of the Lord by calling people to lives of repentance. In the Gospel of John the Evangelist (Jn 3:30,) we read that John the Baptist said about Jesus: “He must increase, while I must decrease.” This is very indicative of what will happen after Jesus’ baptism. Jesus became well known, while John disappeared in the background. Yet while the popularity of Jesus increased, John faded away, and we see him again being arrested and then being beheaded by Herod. Yet there is another interesting twist to the phrase “He must increase and I must decrease.” John’s birthday falls close to the summer solstice, one of the longest days of the year, and from now on, the days will start decreasing, leading to one of the shortest days of the year, which is Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, close to the winter’s solstice, and from then on, the days will start getting longer. “I must decrease, while He must increase.”

It’s a notion worth adapting to in our daily lives - we must decrease our yearnings, our dreams, our wishes, while we should let Him increase in us, increasing our potential to love, increase our prayer life, our devotion to duty, our commitment to our faith. This is the message the church wants us to remember this weekend. We can obviously decrease the clutter from our lives and increase the goodness that is certainly already in your heart.

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