The Church celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist this Sunday, allowing the usual Sunday readings and prayers to give way to this saint not so much on his own account—as impressive a figure as he was—but rather because of his close connection with the life and ministry of Christ. John was the forerunner after all, the one who would go before the Lord to command his people: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Mark 1:3; cf. Isa 40:3).
As we mark the feast of Saint John the Baptist we marvel over how unlikely his very existence was: he was born of parents who were thought to be unable to have a child—a source a great suffering for many couples now as in the time of our Lord. John’s birth of course was announced in a dramatic way, with an angel appearing to his father Zechariah in the Temple and telling him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John” (Luke 1:13). The angel further told Zechariah that not only would their son bring joy and gladness to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but in fact “many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Luke 1:13-15a).
The angel thus revealed that John had a special task to perform in his life, and later we come to know that this task was to prepare the way for the messiah. At the same time however it is important that we carefully note the angel’s words “he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” What we see here is that John’s grandeur—the reason we honor him at mass this day—lies not in his worldly accomplishments or in the recognition that he received from power brokers and members of polite society. On the contrary, it was the power brokers and polite society of John’s day that saw to his beheading.
Rather, John’s grandeur and holiness lay in the fact that he was “great in the sight of the Lord;” that is, his innate human dignity came from the fact that he was made in the image and likeness of the Lord, and called by the Lord, and loved by the Lord. In the sight of other people we are held sometimes in esteem, sometimes in contempt, but God sees through that pettiness and loves us—great or humble, rich or poor, famous or obscure, simply as we are, precious in his eyes if scorned in the eyes of men.
Perhaps we can take a lesson from this as to the value of human life: even an infant destined for worldly insignificance is “great in the sight of the Lord” and deserves the same welcome into life that John the Baptist received from his parents. We see a similar recognition of the preciousness of all life in God’s eyes, especially the lives of the unborn who cannot yet speak in their own defense, in the first reading today from the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jer 1:5), and in today’s responsorial Psalm: “For you are my hope, O Lord; my trust, O Lord, from my youth. On you I depend from birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength” (Ps 71:5-6).
Mindful of John the Baptist and the “greatness” he held in the eyes of the Lord even before his birth, let us pray that all God’s children may be welcomed into life with love, for all are truly “great in the sight of the Lord.”
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.