As I reflected upon in my previous column, we are commemorating Religious Freedom Week, which began with the celebration of the Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, June 22, and will conclude on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29. During this week, we reflect upon the great gift of religious freedom which we especially cherish in our great nation. We pray that this freedom will continue to flourish in our land and throughout the world. We are aware of the threats to religious freedom that are present in our nation and of the horrible injustice of religious persecution taking place in other parts of the world.
The celebration of the Birth of John the Baptist, June 24, occurs during Religious Freedom Week. This year the celebration falls on Sunday and takes the place of the Ordinary Sunday of the Year in the Liturgical Cycle. The Birth of John the Baptist is a Solemnity and therefore takes precedence in our celebration. It is fitting that we are able to celebrate this great feast on Sunday during Religious Freedom Week since John the Baptist was a tremendous example of a man who was not afraid to proclaim his faith and to go to his death for it. He truly was a living example of religious freedom and of the reality that Christ is the light of the world whom enlightens our lives. John bore witness to the truth without compromise. He was ever faithful to the fullness of freedom, always following the words of Christ, "If you remain in my word, you truly will be my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31).
It is no coincidence that the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist falls near the beginning of the summer which took place on June 21. The first day of summer is calculated by the summer solstice which marks the longest day of the year in terms of daylight. However, after this each day gets shorter in daylight until we reach the winter solstice, right before Christmas, when we celebrate the Birth of Christ, which marks the first day of winter and is the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight. From that point each day begins to increase in daylight. It was John the Baptist who said of his relationship to Christ, "He must increase; I must decrease" (Jn 3:30). His words are very much in keeping with his role as expressed at the very beginning of the Gospel of St. John, "A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (Jn 1:6-9). John's birth points to the Birth of Christ as the light comes into the world in Christ. The celebration of the Birth of John the Baptist at this time of the year is a fitting reminder that the daylight begins to decrease until the Birth of Christ when it begins to increase.
John the Baptist was a man of deep faith and conviction. He was highly respected as a religious prophet during his time. He lived an austere and solitary life of penance in the desert and carried out a baptism of repentance which led to conversion of heart. John firmly believed that the Messiah would come into the world as a reformer and would bring harsh judgment to sinners. He was a preacher of conversion with a "fire and brimstone" message. Many thought that he himself was the Messiah.
However, when Christ, whom John had foretold, did come, He did not appear as the harsh reformer John had predicted. Jesus proclaimed the same message of conversion but one that had to do with compassion, understanding and forgiveness in imitation of His Father's love. John began to wonder if he was right about Christ being the Messiah. After John had been arrested and imprisoned for condemning King Herod's adulterous relationship, he sent his messengers to Christ to express his doubts. He questioned Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another" (Mt 11:3)? Jesus replied with very understanding words, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense in me" (Mt 11:4-6). At this point, the Baptist showed his greatest strength. He practiced what he preached – conversion of heart. The Lord was not a zealot but a compassionate Messiah. John did decrease so that Christ might increase. He went to his death, beheaded as a martyr. This example of conversion is the best witness to his message.
John the Baptist truly was a herald of religious freedom. He was free because of his tremendous faith and he did not hesitate to proclaim the coming of the Messiah and Jesus whom he believed was that Messiah. He was not afraid to speak a strong and commanding message to which the people who listened to him responded. He was especially a man without fear who was willing to go to prison because of what he proclaimed. He went to his death as a martyr unwilling to yield his beliefs. He was also a man of freedom because he was not centered on himself but on Christ. When the message of Christ was not proclaimed in the manner that John had imagined, he was willing to change himself to accommodate to Christ. As Pope Francis has stated in regard to St. John the Baptist, "This was the more difficult stage for John, because the Lord had a style he had not imagined." Nevertheless, it was not his style but that of the Lord which mattered. John gave his life to protect the religious liberty of all.
As we celebrate the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist during this Religious Freedom Week, we realize that what ultimately matters is Christ. He is the light and meaning of all things. He alone brings joys and cancels shadows. We all have to decrease so that He might increase. Conviction about our faith in Christ, the light, like that of St. John the Baptist, is the only thing that matters. We continue to pray for the protection of religious freedom of all faiths in our nation and around the world and continue to do all we can to protect it. In a special way, we call upon St. John the Baptist in this regard, especially as we celebrate his birth on Sunday.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 22, 2018