We celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist this week. It’s one of only three birthdays in the Church calendar: Jesus (Dec. 25), Mary (Sept. 8), and John the Baptist (June 24). Why?
We believe these three people were born without original sin: Jesus, because He was God made man; Mary, because she was immaculately conceived; John the Baptist, because he was sanctified in his mother’s womb by the Holy Spirit.
This belief about John — which is attested at least as early as St. Athanasius in the 300s — is rooted in what the angel tells Zechariah: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” We see the fruit of this when John performs his first prophetic act — leaping in the presence of Jesus while still in the womb. As baptism cleanses us from original sin after we’re born, so the Spirit purified John for his prophetic mission while he was still in the womb. Fittingly, many of the readings for the feast — from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalm 71, Psalm 139, and Luke 1 — speak of being called by God in the womb.
One of the key challenges of John’s ministry was: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Don’t just say you repent; make sure your deeds match your words. Interestingly, that’s a major theme of the Gospel readings this week.
Jesus is finishing the Sermon on the Mount. He closes with two warnings that we will be judged on our deeds, not our words: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father,” and “Anyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand.”
So what’s the next thing Jesus does? He follows the Sermon on the Mount with two full chapters of deeds! He’s been telling the people who He is. Now His deeds confirm His words.
This is exactly the guidance St. Gregory of Nyssa gives us: “If we are not to lie when we call ourselves Christians, we must bear witness to it by our way of living.”
These past several months have given us an example that’s worth pondering. Individually, the coronavirus didn’t present a major threat to most people. But, as a society, we believed in the value of protecting the lives of the vulnerable. We didn’t just express that belief in words. We coordinated a series of protective actions on a massive scale: social distancing, limited gatherings, wearing masks and so on. Our actions showed what we believe.
That example can both challenge and encourage us with respect to our faith. We say we believe in God. Do our actions reflect our beliefs — for example, do we set aside time for God even when it’s inconvenient? We say we believe in the value of unborn life. Do our actions reflect our beliefs — for example, do we set aside resources to make sure pregnant mothers can care for themselves and their babies?
We mobilized society on a massive scale these past three months. We believed we should protect the vulnerable, even if it cost us something. It was a worthy cause! It makes me wonder: What other worthy causes are awaiting our mobilization?