This 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.