The Birth of John the Baptist – Prophet who challenged power
By Father Peter Iorio
Ein Karem was one of my favorites during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in February. It is a little town nestled away in the crevices of a mountain just outside Jerusalem with a stream running through it. The name means “spring of the vineyard.” In the Shrine of the Visitation, we recall where Mary, newly pregnant was greeted by Elizabeth and at the sound of Mary’s greeting, her child, John, leaped in her womb. There is great joy as two women with unusual pregnancies, Elizabeth because she is quite old, and Mary because she is not married come together with their unborn sons is thanks and praise to God. Scripture highlights the blessing of the preborn child in the womb.
John the Baptist was born in Ein Karem. He was the Son of a temple priest Zechariah and Elizabeth both parents being advanced in age. He was brought up in a very devout traditional family. The paradox of John’s life as he grew up is that he did not follow tradition into adulthood. He lived a very austere life in the desert, outside the environs of Jerusalem. He was very close to God as an unusual prophet who called people to repentance. He was somewhat of a curiosity as his preaching drew people out from the great city of Jerusalem and the surrounding area to listen to him and to be baptized in the Jordan River.
John challenged power and the abuse of power when he preached, calling King Herod out for his sins. He paid the ultimate price for challenging the powers that be. He was first imprisoned and then beheaded. He truly was the forerunner of the Messiah, heralding his birth, his arrival on the public scene and foreshadowing his death.
While we probably know the story of the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem, and we also know the story of the visit of the Magi to the child and his mother because these stories are presented to us on Christmas and Epiphany, many do not know the rest of the story. According to the Gospel of Matthew, after the Magi returned to their home country by a different route, King Herod was sick with jealousy for a threat to his political power and throne. Remember the Magi were seeking the star of the newborn king of the Jews. Herod sent out soldiers to kill the innocent boys under the age of two years old. John, being six months older than his cousin Jesus, was spared. At the shrine of the Visitation in Ein Karem, there is a stone which tradition tells us is where Elizabeth hid with her baby John from the soldiers who would take his life. That is tradition. John was spared by hiding from the soldiers. Jesus was spared as an infant because Scripture tells us that Joseph was told in a dream to take his wife and the baby Jesus out of harm’s way because there was a threat to his life. The Holy Family left Israel and crossed into another country called Egypt There they stayed in exile as refugees for two years until the threat had passed. Joseph was told in a dream to return. If you want you can look it up in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2.
My thoughts and reflections have gone back to this in recent days because of what is happening at the border of our country. Children, families have been seeking asylum/refuge from violence in their home countries. This is exactly what Joseph, Mary and Jesus experienced and why they left their home country. The son of God, our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph know very intimately what it is like to live in fear and what it is like to find a welcoming place to give them refuge from the threat of violence.
Our times and the challenges of the human condition are not much different today than they were 2000 years ago? Has Christ not taught us anything or given us an example by his own life?
John the Baptist was the precursor and herald of the Messiah. He suffered the same fate as his cousin Jesus, death by the civil authorities. Jesus’ basic justice agenda was simple living, humility, and love of neighbor.
Only by solidarity with other people’s suffering can comfortable people like most of us middle class Americans be converted. Otherwise we are disconnected from the cross (the central symbol and mystery of our faith) —of the world, of others, of Jesus, and finally of our own necessary participation in the great mystery of dying and rising. People who are considered outsiders and at the bottom of society in the New Testament—the lame, poor, blind, prostitutes, tax collectors, “sinners”—are the ones who understand Jesus’ teaching. It’s the leaders and insiders (the priests, scribes, Pharisees, teachers of the law, and Roman officials) who crucify him. Power invariably coalesces and seeks to destroy that which challenges the truth that each and every human life is sacred and has dignity, not just those considered to be the “in” people.
The policies of separating families at the U.S./Mexico border and of criminalizing those who seek asylum are disgraceful. In the prophetic tradition, the bishops of our country have spoken out as voices in the desert to decry the plight of the little ones in need. Throughout Scripture we see God’s mercy toward the outsider and the vulnerable. Jesus makes our treatment of “the least of these brothers and sisters” the only real criteria for the final judgment (see Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus himself was a refugee, and his life and teaching show us what it means to welcome the stranger in our midst. Without love, “law and order” mentalities too often lead to dehumanization.
Today we celebrate the birthday of John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. In six months, we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, son of Mary and son of God. Each of them grew in grace and in knowledge of the mission that God had given them to proclaim the Kingdom of God, a message which was and is challenging even today. May we be filled with the Holy Spirit to not be afraid to proclaim the same Good News that God loves and cares for all his children, born and unborn.