Hi everyone, this is my homily for the SOLEMNITY OF THE NATIVITY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST – June 24, 2018. The readings for today's Mass can be found at http://usccb.org/bible/readings/062418-day-mass.cfm. Thanks as always for reading; sharing this blog on your social media sites; and your feedback and comments. I appreciate it. Have a good week - God Bless - Fr Jim
First off - let me just say thank you for being here today for Mass. In recent years, it’s become obvious that attendance at Sunday Mass has declined. Not just here, at Our Lady of Lourdes in West Orange - not just in the Archdiocese of Newark - but nationally, and throughout many countries collectively called, “The West.” There’s more than a few reasons for this decline . . . but for us here today, I want to take a moment to address the ones that have been self-inflicted.
I’m sure that most of you have heard the disturbing news about the “credible and substantiated” allegations that, 45 years ago, Cardinal McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Newark, sexually abused a minor while McCarrick was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. As well as further allegations that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with adults, with two of those allegations resulting in financial settlements. All of which came out in the news this past Wednesday. If you hadn’t heard this prior to coming to Mass tonight, I apologize being the one to drop such devastating news. Our Archbishop, Cardinal Tobin, has asked all the priests of the Archdiocese to read a letter from him about all of this, which I will do at the end of Mass. So, knowing that to be the case, and assuming that many of you came here already aware of this news, I’ve been trying to process and pray through all of this myself.
I had published a lengthy post Wednesday (http://chernjam.blogspot.com/2018/06/heavy-hearted-thoughts-and-reflections.html) I hoped expressed some of my own emotions - which was much more personal, about my own feelings of anger, hurt and disgust - how the priest sex abuse scandal had greatly disturbed me in the past, and how hard this story hits now – that someone I looked to as a spiritual father during my vocational discernment, through my ordination to priesthood, to him sending me here, to Our Lady of Lourdes some 19 years ago as a newly ordained priest - how it feels to have that man be accused of these awful things.
But as your priest, particularly in a homily, it’s important for me to try to put some of my own pain, anger and feelings aside - as hard as that can be from time to time - and to meditate on God’s word, trying to discern what the Lord wants to say to us. What is he saying to us in the scriptures, in this liturgy, and in the world around us. So that’s what I’m going to try to do now.
Today we celebrate at this Mass a solemnity - a special “feast day” - that is so special it kind of knocks the “Ordinary Time” routine out. Kind of like when December 25th falls on a Sunday - Christmas is important enough of a birthday to celebrate that the Sunday schedule has to accommodate Christmas’ date. Well, today’s date is just as important to do the same.
In fact, this one is very linked to December 25th. Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist - 6 months before we will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ at Christmas. The Church, when it first celebrated these momentous events, was primarily based in the Northern Hemisphere, so they looked at some cosmic occurrences and based the liturgical calendar on a natural phenomenon. The birth of Jesus Christ would be fixed on a date closest to when this part of the world experienced the least amount of light per day - the Winter Equinox. That’s where Midnight Mass (when it was celebrated at Midnight) came from. The idea that, at the deepest, darkest hour of night during the darkest time of the year, we celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ - that the light of the world was born. John the Baptist’s birth was fixed as a counterpart, at a time where the solar calendar experienced the greatest amount of light. Thursday was the “first day of summer,” the Summer Equinox - which is called the longest day of the year because we had 15 hours and 6 minutes of daylight . . . by today we’ve lost a minute of daylight - and that will continue as the days now grow incrementally “shorter.” The “darkness” will continue to grow in nature until winter arrives again.
So it’s as the darkness grows, that we celebrate John the Baptist’s birth. John who’s birth involves miraculous works (being conceived by Elizabeth, who was elderly and thought to be barren), and angelic visitations (the Angel Gabriel telling John the Baptist's father, Zechariah, the Jewish high priest, all about the divine call that his son will have, from his very conception). It is indeed a special, a unique story.
Because this child, John the Baptist, will be the messenger: Jesus is the message. It’s in the darkness of the world, that John the Baptist points to the eternal, undiminished, resplendent light of the world who incarnated into history some 2,000 years ago . . . Jesus who will come at the end of history (our own personal ones, and at the end of all time) - and who still comes, here and now, into this very time, this very space.
John’s birth was confusing to those who were closest to these events, at the time. Zechariah was so confused, he expressed doubts to the Angel Gabriel about all of this . . . which was why the angel silenced him, and he was left mute, completely unable to speak until John was born. His family and friends, in today’s Gospel, are looking at this elderly woman, Elizabeth. A woman who should be a great-grandmother, yet who is now holding her own newborn baby. Hearing that this boy won’t be named after his father, as would have been customary, but instead be named John (a name that means, “The Lord has shown his favor”). Seeing all these amazing, confusing events, hearing all these things, they ask in all sincerity, “What then will this child be?”
John the Baptist will be the messenger. Jesus is the message.
God uses these unusual, unconventional characters to help get his word out. We like to armchair quarterback this one, thinking there had to have been a better, a more appropriate, more direct, more conventional way for all of this to have played out. But God disagrees. God's son will enter into our humanity, enter into our human history, enter into our own personal stories, our struggles, our fears, our doubts, our worries, even into our darkness - the darkness of sin that each and every one of us has struggled with - to take all that and cast it out.
John the Baptist and his family were important, but imperfect instruments in pointing others to Jesus - Jesus who came not only to save you and I, to save all of humanity - but to also save this particular family, his aunt Elizabeth, his uncle Zechariah, his (slightly) older cousin John. As St. Paul reminds us in the second reading, John the Baptist knew this himself when he said, “I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet” as he looked at Jesus. The messenger needed the message, just as much as we do.
And that’s something that has been on my mind this week. Because it’s understandable in our rage and anger over the news of the last few days to become legalistic and think that everything is corrupted, everything is tainted as fruits of a poisonous tree. That because certain Church leaders have failed in spectacular fashion, so it is a logical next step to think that it is all corrupt, it is all tainted. Our legal system works off of that principle, for often times good reasons.
But the message we celebrate today, and everyday here - is the message of Jesus Christ. Not the message of Father Jim Chern, or any priest who celebrates Mass here or even the message of Cardinal McCarrick. But the message of Jesus Christ - a message of forgiveness to those who truly repent; a message of healing for those who are broken; a message of amazing love that defies our abilities of comprehension, that calls us to embrace our own crosses and help one another carry theirs - all with the promise that it’s through the cross that darkness is overcome. By the radiant light of Christ
I don’t mean to offer this as an excuse for any of the atrocious things we’ve heard the last few days, or the last few years to be honest. Nor is it to spiritualize away any of the calls for justice to be pursued, for those who have committed atrocities, for those who have abused the trust of the people of God, for those who have taken advantage of the goodness of the people of God not to be held accountable. We are right to demand that. We have to demand that otherwise we cannot continue to proclaim the kingdom of God. The two things - abuse, and God's love - are completely incompatible.
But we also have to protect ourselves, our hearts and souls. There’s too great a temptation to allow the scandal and the sins of some in the clergy to diminish the message - to diminsh Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls. We may want to, but if we give in to our anger and let that undermine the precious gifts of faith, hope and love - where will that leave us?. For me, personally, it’s taken a while to get to a place where I can really appreciate the importance of that question. Some of you know that it was almost 11 years ago that I came very close to leaving the priesthood - in part because of scandals like this, in part because of my anger and confusion on a more local level that I almost couldn't deal with (including the closing of Our Lady of Lourdes school). It was in my own brokenness, recognizing my own sinfulness - and lack of faith to be quite honest - that I encountered Jesus once again in a new, profound and gentle way that ultimately drew me back into the priesthood. It was through that experience that I could see how this was nothing new for the Church. From the night of the last Supper, Jesus would contend with people who he had trusted to be his messengers who would deny him, betray him in catastrophic ways . . . right from the very beginning that was the case. We can’t forget that Judas also had his feet washed by Christ on that momentous night.
Yet, Jesus’ victory over sin and death in the resurrection would be communicated by people who were able to see past the scandal of their day and recognize the eternal importance of their divine calls. The Divine Yes. People who could see Jesus Christ, and make him real to others. They would become the Church, who like Jesus himself was both divine and human.
Even as we struggle with the awful news of this past week, something drew us here tonight, in spite of everything - we were looking to hear good news - we were hoping to hear a new message. John the Baptist, and the countless billions followed Christ after him, have shared the good news of Jesus Christ in the millennia that followed. May the celebration of John’s birth be a source of renewal for us in our appreciation for the message of Christ, and our love for him, ourselves. Despite the evil around us, and as we actively fight against it, may we not lose sight of Christ. Who is not only our reason for being here tonight… but more importantly - He is our reason for being.