June 24, 2018
Fr. Joseph A. Jacobi
During my recent trip to Italy with my cousins, we spent several days in Florence, one of the art capitals of the world. We spent one afternoon in the Ufizzi Art Gallery in Florence, which displays many of the most beautiful Italian paintings in the entire world. Many of these works of art had originally been made for churches, and taken out of churches so more people could enjoy them. The next day my cousins decided to go shopping, while I chose to go church-hopping. I wanted to see beautiful religious art in its original setting.
The first church I entered had a beautiful frescoe of the birth of Mary, and I was struck bythe important role of the grandparents of Jesus, Joachim and Ann, in the story of salvation. Then I went to the baptistery of the Cathedral of Florence, which is a separate building from the cathedral. It is as big as this church of ours. The baptistery has incredible art work on its large cylindrical ceiling. I got a bit of a crick in my neck looking at the upper band—the story of Creation and the Fall of Adam and Eve; then the next circular band told the story of major events in the life of John the Baptist, and the lowest band the story of major events in the life of Christ.
Next I walked over to the church next to the train station, the Church of Santa Maria Novella. The original church dated back to the 10th century, but when the Dominicans came to Florence in the 13th century, they found that the church was too small, so they started building the new church toward the end of the 13th Century. Two centuries later several famous Italian artists were commissioned to do some beautiful frescoes.
One of them was Ghirlandaio, who did a magnificent frescoe behind the altar of the Birth of John the Baptist. I could not recall seeing John’s birth depicted in art before. I was fascinated to see how the artist showed Elizabeth resting in bed, most likely worn out, at her advanced age, in giving birth. At her feet sat a young lady, most likely the Virgin Mary (since Scriptures reveal she stayed with Elizabeth and helped with the birthing process) holding the newborn John in her arms. She holding the child who would spend his life preparing the way for her child.
The events surrounding the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist and his actual birth show how God was at work in very mysterious yet powerful ways. These events also unveiled what John’s mission would be.
The archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was serving in the temple to tell him that his barren wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son and that they were to name him John. Zechariah and Elizabeth were way beyond the age of having children, so Zechariah expressed his doubts about the angel’s message, and was struck mute—unable to speak. Gabriel told him he would have his tongue loosed when John was born. The archangel also told Zechariah that this child, John, would be granted the spirit and power of Elijah to turn people back to God, to prepare a people fit for the Lord. (Luke 1:17 )
There was an expectation among the people of Israel that the prophet Elijah would return to earth to prepare God’s chosen people for the coming of the Messiah. Reflecting upon the prophetic witness of John, Jesus declared that John was that Elijah that the people were expecting.
Like the first Elijah, John was a truth teller. He spoke the truth to power, which is a sure way to get into trouble when power is a living lie. He disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed.
The message of John, whose birth we commemorate today, is as challenging now as it was when his voice cried out in the desert. Not everything the powerful do is morally right. Not everything enshrined in the law of the land is right even though it has become the law of the land. Then and now, there are things enshrined in the law by the powerful that are not just or morally right. Abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia are obvious examples, but there are more, especially whenever a law degrades in any way the God-given dignity of the human person, no matter what their race, color of skin, or country of origin.
Besides speaking the truth to power, and thus preparing the way for the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, John also pointed out Jesus to others when he came. In fact, this is the way that John is most commonly depicted in religious art— pointing to Jesus.
I pointed this fact out to my cousin Anthony as we looked at the art in the Ufizzi Gallery, and pretty soon he was able to notice John “pointing”. Even as a child, the artists painted John pointing to Jesus. Even when people wanted to point at John and say, “You are the Messiah,” he would point beyond himself to the One to Come by saying he was not the Messiah. John, in completely humility, spent his life pointing beyond himself to the Lord.
John challenges us, because instead of pointing to the Lord Jesus, we often point fingers at one another, blaming the other. We say, “It’s his fault” or “It’s her fault.” This kind of “pointing” is the result of original sin.
So, John is a gift to us to remind us what we are called to be— we are called to point beyond ourselves to the Lord Jesus.
Some people wonder: “Is there a divine purpose for our lives?” This solemnity of the birth of John the Baptist says YES!
As the Psalmist reminds us, God knit us in our mother’s womb. God made us for a purpose. Perhaps our purpose is to speak the truth to power with courage, so that the justice of God’s kingdom might flower in our world.
John the Baptist not only had a mission, his very life was mission from God. As Pope Francis says in Rejoice and Be Glad :
“Each saint is a mission planned by the Father to reflect and embody, at a specific moment in history, a certain aspect of the Gospel.”
As the Pope goes on to point out in this document, this is true for every disciple of Christ, for we are all called to holiness, we are not simply on a mission from God, but we are a mission from God, sent to make the world holy.
Our purpose, in our own unique way, is to point others to the Lord Jesus by the words we speak and the lives of charity we live.