June 24, 2007

NATIVITY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

John is his name. – Luke 1: 63

What’s in a name? In Hebrew his name reads Yohanan, meaning “Yahweh has shown favor.” On one level, giving him this name might simply be an expression of gratitude for the blessing of a child in their old age, but we know it has a more profound reference. It is an assertion that God has broken into our lives in a rather dramatic fashion & in a way that will be a blessing for all.

How so? I don’t think it was because John was an uncompromising, rigoristic, fire & brimstone preacher. It has to do with something we do not often associate with him: humility. He could be very judgmental when it came to the Jewish hierarchy, but not vis-ŕ-vis his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. Let’s take an analogy from a more recent time.

Every young student knows of Isaac Newton’s famed encounter with a falling apple. In the 1600’s, Newton discovered the laws of gravity, which revolutionized science. But few know that if it weren’t for Edmund Halley, the world might never have learned from Newton . It was Halley who challenged Newton to think through his original notions. Halley corrected Newton ’s mathematical errors & prepared geometrical figures to support his discoveries. Halley coaxed the hesitant Newton to write his great work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Halley edited & supervised the publication, & actually financed its printing even though Newton was wealthier & could easily have afforded the printing costs.

Historians call it one of the most selfless examples in the annals of science. Newton began almost immediately to reap the rewards of prominence; Halley received little credit. He did use the principles to predict the orbit & return of the comet that would later bear his name, but only AFTER his death did he receive any acclaim. And because the comet only returns every 76 years, the notice is rather infrequent. Halley remained a devoted scientist who didn’t care who received the credit as long as the cause of science was being advanced. His is a classic example of the principle of John the Baptist whose birth we celebrate today: “He must increase & I must decrease.”

John’s motto of true humility & commitment to the Lord’s service applies to all Christians. The vocation of every Christian is to let the light of Jesus shine forth, & to bear witness to the Word who became flesh & dwelt among us [an act of humility even greater than that of John]. That is still the role of every missionary today – to plant the church & then withdraw – leaving it in the hands of the new local community. Our job is to dwindle to zero, giving full space to God in our hearts when we allow ourselves to be permeated with the spirit of Christ.

Of course, that’s the rub: putting aside our egos. It is one of the toughest lessons we will ever learn, so much so that one might well describe it as a life-long process, not an accomplished fact. But ironically, it is the key to true freedom. John, & others like him since, was able to embrace his martyrdom because the world could no longer touch him. Neither imprisonment nor threats could distract his gaze from the singular favor that God bestowed upon all of us in the Incarnation. The awesomeness of it was not lost on John. Is it lost on us? AMEN!