Because human life is always a precious gift from God, it is fitting to celebrate a person’s birthday. Today we joyfully celebrate the birth of a great man: St. John the Baptist. It is one of the three birthdays that the whole Church celebrates in the liturgical year; the other two are those of Jesus (Dec. 25) and Mary (Sept. 8).
John’s birth has many marvelous elements. It was foretold by an angel to his aged father Zechariah while he was serving in the temple. This announcement alone was a clear indication that God had a special mission for John, even before he was conceived. Later, while he was still in the womb, John was filled with the Holy Spirit. When Mary’s greeting reached the ears of his mother Elizabeth, John leapt for joy (cf. Lk 1:41). Zechariah had not been so quick to leap in faith at the wonderful news, so throughout Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he was obliged to remain silent, as though he were on a silent retreat, in order to grow stronger in faith. During this time Zechariah too was being “formed in his inmost being” by the power of the Spirit. Once John was born and his father wrote, “John is his name,” the great news of his birth was proclaimed and discussed throughout the region – beginning with Zechariah himself. All who heard of these events pondered them in their hearts – as we do today – for it was clear that the hand of the Lord was with John from before his birth.
Everyone wondered, “What, then, will this child be?” Today’s Gospel Acclamation gives a clear answer, quoting from the prophecy that Zechariah made when he was filled with the Holy Spirit: “You, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way” (Lk 1:76).
John’s vocation was unique, but his birthday gives us an opportunity to reflect on the importance and beauty of human life before birth. Today’s psalm, Psalm 139, reflects on the wonder of life as God’s first gift to us. Each of us can say to God, with hearts full of awe and gratitude: “Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made; wonderful are your works. My soul also you knew full well; nor was my frame unknown to you, when I was made in secret, when I was fashioned in the depths of the earth.”
In modern times, the wonder of life in the womb is often contradicted. We are being continually bombarded with the secular world’s anti-life agenda, according to which a child in the womb, especially in the earlier stages of gestation, is not really a person. This lie is at the root of the “contraceptive mentality.” The idea that an embryo or a fetus is not a human person leads to the evil conclusions that the unborn child does not have a right to life, and that a mother therefore has a right to end her child’s life. Women are being told that they can legitimately use all sorts of chemicals and devices to disrupt the marvelous process by which their children are “fearfully, wonderfully made” in the womb.
The celebration of today’s feast is an occasion to strengthen our respect for the value of each human life. Each human person conceived is known by God, willed by God, named by God. “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God, and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (CCC 2258).
Today’s feast should also give us a renewed appreciation of our own lives. God has called each of us into being; he wants us to be. Even before our conception God knew our names, as well as the unique mission he had in mind for us. With God there are no accidents. Every person exists by God’s deliberate choice. Valuing our own life is part of faith. At times when we are suffering, when the burdens of life seem overwhelming, we might be tempted to think that life is not worth living. Then it is all the more important for us to draw near to God, who loves us. Usually in times of crisis we must also be humble enough to seek the support of our loved ones. As God inspired Mary to serve Elizabeth and Zechariah, so he will provide us with the help and companionship that we need – from Mary and all the Saints, and from those who are still with us on earth.
The name that God personally chose for John means “God is gracious.” This name is also a message to each of us: God is gracious to us. Each of us can truly say the words of Isaiah: “The Lord called me from birth; from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” Now we, like John, are called to serve the Lord who sends us forth. Though we too are not worthy to unfasten the sandals on the Lord’s feet, we have been entrusted with a message of hope for others: God is gracious!
How can I show others that I value life from birth to death? Do I appreciate the gift of my own life? When faced with suffering, do I turn to the Lord who loves me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.