Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We celebrate a remarkable feast this week: the nativity of St. John the Baptist.
The Church only celebrates three births in her liturgical calendar: the birth of Jesus (Dec. 25), the birth of Mary (Sept. 8), and the birth of John the Baptist (June 24). Why?
We celebrate the birth of Jesus because He was God incarnate. We celebrate the birth of Mary because she was conceived without sin. We celebrate the birth of John because he was sanctified in the womb by the Holy Spirit. (See Luke 1:15: “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”) We celebrate them because all three were born without sin, and that is a rare grace.
We can see that natural talents are distributed unevenly in the world. God’s graces are distributed unevenly as well. John the Baptist received a special grace. So did Abraham, David, Jeremiah and many others throughout salvation history. The election of Israel as God’s chosen people is a case in point. God gives gifts to some people that He does not give to others. That raises a natural question: “How is that fair?”
On one level the answer is: it isn’t, if by “fair” you mean “everyone gets the same thing.”
But if you think about salvation history, there’s a deeper and better answer: those gifts are not given for the individual, but for service to the world.
All through salvation history God gives gifts to the world through individuals — not to the individual for the individual, but to the world through the individual. God didn’t just give a rare gift to John the Baptist for John’s glorification. In giving him a gift, He also asked him to perform a service. John was to “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord” and to “prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17). What really would have been unfair would have been for John to hide his gift, fail to develop it or fail to use it in service to the world.
If we ponder some of the approaches people take to the unequal distribution of gifts — both natural talents and supernatural graces — we can see that it’s easy to get the issue wrong and hard to get it right.
One approach is to fail to develop the gifts because that would highlight their inequality. But that approach — highlighted in C.S. Lewis’ essay “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” — also deprives the world of the service that’s meant to come from the gifts.
Another approach is to put the gifts to use but for our own glorification. We see this in some athletes and actors whose attitude can be described as: “look at me!” It was a temptation for Israel in the Old Testament to see their election this way.
The best response is to recognize the gifts, develop them and put them to use for the good of others. We see this in sports when we see a good team player. It’s what we see in the saints as well.
John the Baptist received a rare privilege. He didn’t spend any time and energy bemoaning the unfairness of it. Instead, he spent all his time and energy putting it to work, serving others. We should follow his example.