Brothers, the birth of John the Baptist, which we celebrate on this Solemnity, is an event of a type we see repeatedly in the bible: a miracle that inspires rejoicing – and fear. But every birth of a child into the world is a miracle that awakens in us
a curious mixture of joy and fear. We know a child born into the world will radically change the life of a woman and, in what some women today consider an affront to a woman, the newly conceived child touches upon the mother’s very identity as a person. To the extent a woman has succeeded in making herself to “be her own person”, she may be unprepared for the discovery that, having conceived a child, she is made a new person; a person responsible for another who lives inside her – and is not her. Here is a miracle with a unique power to move the heart to joy and fear.
There is a deeper paradox in the mystery of the birth of St. John the Baptist. John will be a light for the world – and yet this light will, from the day of his birth begin a slow fade; steadily dimming in the radiance of that Greater Light whose coming he will foretell. The “greatest man born of a woman” will proclaim that his vocation is to decrease so that Another may increase. The date chosen by the church to celebrate his birth reflects John’s unique vocation. Celebrated exactly six months prior to the birth of Jesus on December 24, John’s birthday depicts for us how the one who comes after John, comes before him. Correlated with the Summer Equinox, John’s birth introduces into the world a light that will diminish even as the daylight hours grow shorter into the Fall Season. The fading light of this season prepares us for the birth of Christ, which the church correlates with the Winter Equinox. During this season, the hours of daylight grow longer and longer, gladdening our human hearts even as we praise Him whose arrival is the dawning of the true the Light.
All this means that, in a way, we are, today, beginning our celebration of Christmas – which may strike you as a rather odd thing to say. Commemorating in June the birth of Christ, our celebration is but a faint glimmering of the brilliance of Christmas Day. But the very dimness of today’s anticipation of Christmas, is a symbol of the life and mission of John the Baptist – and maybe our own vocation as welled have been called by Christ to be Cistercian monks. As enclosed monks, flourishing in a wilderness in the Ozarks, we are virtually invisible to the world. And yet, we have every reason to believe our witness is no less a miracle; no less vitally important and beautiful in God’s plan of salvation than the Birth of John the Baptist. Like us, he was born in obscurity, made his home in the wilderness, and was content to have the light of his tiny flame fade ever more as all eyes were turned to the Light of Christ and the redemption won for us by His sacrifice. May our celebration of this feast, awaken our hearts to the mystery of God’s loving providence made visible in the witness of John the Baptist and in our witness