Tag Archives: John the Baptist

John the Baptist, Hannah Arendt, and birth

ChartresBaptist001This weekend we Catholics celebrate a birth, the birth of John the Baptist. Beside the birth of Jesus and the birth of Mary, John’s is the only other birth the Catholic Church celebrates liturgically.

The saints are traditionally celebrated on the day of their birth into heaven – the day of their death. But we celebrate john the Baptist on two days during the Church year – the birth of John the Baptist on June 24 and his Beheading on August 29. Just to show you how weird I am, the Beheading of John the Baptist is one of my favorite feasts – after all, I am named after him and lose my head every once in a while.

But this weekend we Catholics celebrate his birth. As I pondered this, I recalled one of the most amazing insights of one of my teachers, Hannah Arendt.


For this Jewish German-American philosopher, one of the most significant aspects of the human condition is our natality. In her classic work, The Human Condition, she speaks of the importance of forgiveness, to free us from the past, and promising, to open us to the future. These allow us to act – not beholden to the past and stuck to fate, nor paralyzed by the unpredictability of the future.

She, influenced by the thought of Saint Augustine, saw the importance of beginnings, of birth – citing The City of God:

            “that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody”


“With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created, not before.” (The Human Condition, p. 177)

Thus the fact of birth, the birth of a person, is a sign that something new is happening, something new is possible. We are not bound by the past. No matter what the powers of this world try to do to make us conform to their will, something new is possible.

The birth of John the Baptist is a sign that God is making something new. His father insists on John as his name, a new name that was not found among the relatives of Zachariah. “His name is John.” That’s it. Something new, breaking with tradition, breaking with the normal.

As Arendt wrote:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning., the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope… It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tiding”: “A child has been born unto us.” (The Human Condition, p. 247)

With the birth of John, God unleashes into the world the possibility of living anew, living differently, living beyond the norms of society.

What does this look like?

As Zachariah sings in his canticle (Luke 1: 68-79) , it means forgiveness of sins – not being tied any longer to our faults and sins; it means the in-breaking, the dawning of compassion in a world of pain and oppression; it means walking in the ways of peace, not war. Something new is about to happen.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Celebrating the birth of John, we celebrate that God has visited his people and is making all things new. We are no longer controlled by the past of our sins or the past of unjust social structures. We are free to act with love, seeking peace, including all – reconciling children with their parents. As the angel told Zachariah, his son will “turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (Luke 1: 18)

May we live, in that freedom, the freedom to make all things new.

I am not

I am not…
John the Baptist
John 1: 20-21

Three times in today’s Gospel (John 1: 19-27), John the Baptist says, “I am not…”

Pop psychology is often very much concerned about having an adequate self-image and would probably be concerned about these words of denial of John.

However, I believe that acknowledging who I am not can be liberating, can let the power of God work within us and through us.

Being clear that we are not the messiah, the prophet, the savior is a first step to acknowledging who we really are.

I remember one day in the 1980s when I was working in campus ministry and was very concerned about the wars in Central America and other parts of the world. A student I worked with asked me, without any malice, “What country are you saving today?”

Though I might not have taken to heart his challenge, in the last few years his question has opened my heart to recognize that I am not the savior – of a country, of a person, of a parish.

This frees me to be who I am called to be. It relieves me of any personal or societal expectations.

It has opened me to see, today, that I am called to be one whom God uses to open the way of the Lord.

This is freedom – because the Lord is the One who acts and saves.


Not me.


And I am just the servant of the Lord.

Martyrs and the Ministry of the Cup

The beheading of John the Baptist is one of my favorite feast days. There is something compelling about the witness of my patron saint and his willingness to give his life for truth and justice, as the prayer at Mass today reads.

I have been fascinated by martyrs for many years. I deliberately use the word “fascinated” which comes from the Latin word which means “bewitched” or “spell-bound.”

The willingness to give one’s life is bewitching, compelling me to look closer.

For me, several twentieth century martyrs hold me spell-bound – Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero who gave his life for the people of El Salvador, not flinching from speaking the truth and being a voice for those without a voice; Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army because he saw Nazism as a hell-bent movement; Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who died in the Algerians desert, living as a poor man among the poorest.

But I have been deeply moved by the Trappist martyrs of Tibhirine, who lived among their Muslim brothers and sisters in Algeria and stayed in the face of threats. Their death by extremists is a witness to love for all. The Testament of their prior, Christian de Chergé, is a witness to the power of forgiving love.

Yesterday, during Mass in San Agustín, at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, I raised the cup of the Blood of Christ – as the deacon is called to do.

At that moment I recognized that Jesus is calling me to give my life – even to the point of death – for Him and for the People of God.

It was not a moment of fear – but of consolation.

Yet, as I reflect this morning, I realize that giving one’s life is not a question of a last minute decision in the face of the executioner. It is a question of a daily dying, a daily giving, a daily putting of myself at the service of God and all, especially the poor.

In the rite of ordination of a deacon, I was asked

“¿Quieres imitar siempre en tu vida el ejemplo de Cristo, cuyo cuerpo y sangre servirás en el Altar?”

Are you willing to always imitate in your life the example of Christ, whose Body and Blood you will serve at the altar?

The response is:

Si, quiero hacerlo, con la ayuda de Dios.

Yes, I am willing to do so, with the help of God.

It is the only response in which I said “with the help of God.”

Perhaps because it’s only with the help of God that I can witness – that is be a martyr – for the love of God.

May God give me the courage to live this witness every day – not only in the hour of death.



A panel in the baptistery in Florence.

Defaming the motherland

This man must die,
for he has spoken against the City…
Jeremiah 26: 11

 Today’s readings present us with the challenge the prophets give to all those in power.

Jeremiah has attacked the complacency and idolatry of the religious leaders, who trust in their power and fail to turn the hearts of the people to the Lord.

John the Baptist has attacked the power and lechery of Herod. The Gospels connect John’s death with his illicit union with his brother’s wife; Flavius Josephus suggested that Herod feared that John’s preaching would provoke a rebellion.

The prophets threaten the status quo; they threaten the idolatry of the powers that be. As Fr. Dan Berrigan, S.J., puts it, they “defame the motherland.”

But how often do we Christians put our trust in the nation state or in our status as “good Christians” or “good Americans”? These are all too easy temptations?

Where does our real allegiance lie?

In whom do we really trust?

And, are we really willing to challenge the Powers that be?



The Baptist and the summer solstice

The Catholic Church celebrates only three birthdays: Jesus on December 24, Mary on September 8, and John the Baptist on June 24.

Christmas is celebrated around the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. In the darkness, the light of the newborn babe shines, promising light and life.

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

The nativity of St. John is near the summer solstice, the longest day in the northern hemisphere. In some places in the world it is celebrated with vigils and a night celebration around a fire.

Interestingly, from this day on the days get shorter. The light decreases.

One of the most striking aspects of St. John the Baptist is his identity as a precursor, the one who comes before the Messiah. As John said, “ He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3: 30)

As the length of the days decreases, we celebrate the one who saw his role as decreasing.

Decreasing so that someone else can have the spotlight is not easy. It demands a discipline of humility and a willingness to let others shine.

John had his priorities right – letting the Messiah shine.

A good message for people like me.


Birth of John the Baptist

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

His name is John.

Today the Gospel relates the birth of John the Baptist.

The relatives want to give him the name of his father.

But, surprise!

Elizabeth and Zacharias insist on the name “John.”

In Hebrew, John means “God is gracious.”

Graciousness is, for me, one of the most important starting points for believing and living.

God is gracious – and gives us all, without cost.

And so we too are called to be gracious, to be giving – and above all to be forever “giving thanks.”

All is grace.





Give us prophets like John the Baptist

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

These last few days of Advent the Gospels speak to us of the time immediately preceding the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Today the Gospel, Luke 1: 5-25,  is the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah.

John the Baptist played a central role in preparing the way for Jesus’ public ministry. He is also one of the central figures of Advent.

For many years during Advent I’ve been reading the prison meditations of the martyred German Jesuit, Alfred Delp, S.J. His meditation on John, written from a Nazi prison in 1944, is particularly apt. In part it reads:

…woe to any age in which the voice crying in the wilderness can no longer be heard because the noises of everyday life drown it out — or restrictions forbid it  — or it is lost in the hurry and turmoil of “progress” — or simply stifled by authority, misled by fear and cowardice….

…There should never be any lack of prophets like John the Baptist in the kaleidoscope of life at any period…They warn us of our chance, because they can already feel the ground heaving beneath their feet… They cry out to us, urging us to save ourselves by a change of heart before the coming of the catastrophes threatening to overwhelm us.

Oh God, surely enough people nowadays know what it means to clear away bomb dust and rubble of destruction, making the rough places smooth… Oh may the arresting voices of the wilderness ring out warning humankind in good time that ruin and destruction actually spread from within. May the Advent figure of St. John the Baptist, the incorruptible herald and teacher in God’s name, be no longer a stranger in our wilderness. Much depends on such symbolic figures in our lives. For how shall we hear if there are none to cry out, none whose voice can rise above the tumult of violence and destruction, [above] the false clamor that deafens us to reality?

Would that we had move people like John, aware of the violence and hunger and oppression in our world, willing to cry out, so that we might be “a people fit for the Lord.”

The passage cited is taken from Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings (Orbis Books, 2004).


Reconciling parents and children – Elijah

Elijah, fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

Elijah, fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

Elijah is my favorite Jewish prophet.

Elijah had fire in his belly. He was not afraid to confront the king, his wife, and the court priests of Baal.

I have problems with his massacre of the priests of Baal but his encounter with God on Mount Horeb perhaps helped redeem him from his bloodthirsty killing. There he finds God not in fire, thunder, or earthquake, but in a light breath, a gentle breeze. (1 Kings 17: 11-13)

Perhaps that reminded him of how he had raised the son of the widow of Zarephath to life by what looks like a form of artificial respiration – using the power of breath.

But what struck me this morning was the phrase from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 48: 10: Elijah was destined “to turn back the hearts of fathers to their sons.”

It is a tender image. Recalling the sometimes difficult relations of fathers and sons, Elijah and John the Baptist (Luke 1: 17) have been given this calling. The Septuagint uses the word ἐπιστρέφω, which means turning back, the Latin Vulgate uses the word conciliare – to unite, to conciliate.

Our call – like John the Baptist’s and Elijah’s – is to help bring about the reconciliation that God desires, the reconciliation that is made real in Jesus, God become human, to effect reconciliation not through killing, but by giving himself up, letting himself be killed.

In light of the killings yesterday, let’s remember that we are all called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5; 17-20), a ministry which Christ has accomplished but which we are called to make real amidst the pain and suffering of our world.

From the darkness of prison

Are you the one who is to come
or should we look for another?
Luke 7: 19

 In the darkness of his prison cell John the Baptist must have wondered whether his mission was in vain. So he sends two disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the promised one.

Jesus first continues to heal, to expel demons, and bring good news to the poor. Then he tells John’s disciples to share what they have seen and heard. He is telling them to see what he, the Lord of love and justice, is doing.

In the darkness, there is light.

This does not mean that all will be healed and all will be light.

So often we seek the light, the consolation, the easy life. But as a priest once asked me during a retreat, “Are you seeking the consolation of God or the God of consolation?”

Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite reformer and doctor of the church, who wrote incredible love poems. But he wrote them in the darkness of a prison cell where he was held by non-reformed Carmelites. In the darkness and the suffering – including being flogged – he sought God and found the presence of God.

He would not deny the sufferings of the world. But he wrote,

“If only people would understand how impossible it is to reach God’s riches and wisdom except by passing through the thicket of toil and suffering….

“For the gate to the riches of God’s wisdom is the Cross; many desire the consoling joy to which the Cross leads, but few desire the Cross itself.”

Does this mean we seek to suffer? Hardly. For we have a God who became flesh and healed the sick and suffering.

But it does mean that we cannot deny the suffering present in this world, we cannot seek for ourselves a suffering-free existence. I believe that if we try to make out lives totally free from pain and suffering we will not see the pain and suffering of others and, worse, our actions to live an easy life will bring hardships on others.

And so Jesus did not come to live an easy life but to heal the sick. This eventually brought him to the Cross. But through the Cross we come to be raised up.

Today may we see the suffering of our world and be in solidarity with those who suffer. But may we also see the healing power of God active in our world – and seek to be a part of that love for others, especially those who suffer.

Perhaps we will not see this from prison cells as John the Baptist and John of the Cross did – but we cannot fail to see the pain – and the promise –  if we really seek the God of consolation and not merely the consolation of God.


We need voices crying in our wilderness

The voice of one crying in the desert:
Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight His paths.
Mark 1: 3

From his prison cell in Nazi Germany in 1944, Father Alfred Delp, S.J., wrote of John the Baptist:

…woe to any age in which the voice crying in the wilderness can no longer be heard because the noises of everyday life drown it – or restrictions forbid it – or it is lost in the hurry and turmoil of “progress” – or simply stifled by authority, misled by fear and cowardice.

…There should never ne any lack of prophets like John the Baptist in the kaleidoscope of life at any period… They warn us of our chance, because they can already feel the ground heaving beneath their feet… They cry out to us, urging us to save ourselves by a change of heart before the coming of the catastrophe threatening to overwhelm us.

…Oh may the arresting voices of the wilderness ring out, warning [humanity] in good time, that ruin and devastation actually spread from within. May the Advent figure of St. John the Baptist, the incorruptible herald and teacher in God’s name, be no longer a stranger in our own wilderness…. For how shall we hear if there are none to cry out, none whose voice can rise above the tumult of violence and destruction, the false clamor that deafens us to reality?

Where are the voices crying out today, the voices of prophets?

How can I be a voice denouncing the injustice and oppression around me, calling to repentance – providing hope and signs of the Kingdom of God in our midst?

Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., noted that “repentance … is the beginning of hope.”

Would that we would repent and also call our nations and even the church to repentance, “awaiting a new heaven and a new earth in which justice reigns.” (2 Peter 3: 13)


The quotation from Father Alfred Delp, S.J., is taken from Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings (Orbis Books, 2004), pages 16-17.