22 June 2012

'Many will rejoice at his birth'. Sunday Reflections for the Birthday of St John the Baptist

Birth of the Baptist, Andrea Pisano 1330 Gilt Bronze (panel of southern door), Baptistry,  Florence, Italy

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings  (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Vigil Mass and Mass During the Day  [The readings for the Vigil Mass are on the upper part of the page, those for the Mass During the Day on the lower part of the page.]

Liturgical Note. The Solemnity of the Birth of St John the Baptist, like Easter and some other solemnities, has a Vigil, properly so-called. This is not an ‘anticipated Mass’ but a Vigil Mass in its own right, with its own set of prayers and readings. It fulfils our Sunday obligation. The prayers and readings of the Mass During the Day should not be used for the Vigil Mass, nor those of the Vigil Mass for the Mass During the Day. As a solemnity this celebration takes precedence over the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Gospel Luke 1:57-66, 80 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, "Not so; he shall be called John." And they said to her, "None of your kindred is called by this name." And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, "His name is John." And they all marveled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What then will this child be?" For the hand of the Lord was with him. 

And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel. 

The Visitation, El Greco, painted 1610-13

More  than thirty years ago I was chatting with a six-year-old girl in the parish in Mindanao where I was serving and asked her how many brothers and sisters she had. 'We are three', she replied in Cebuano Visayan, 'Manong, I and the one with our mother'. 'Manong' is an honorific for an older brother or a male older than yourself, in this case her older brother. 'The one with our mother' at the time was where St John the Baptist and Jesus are in El Greco's life-filled painting of the Visitation above, still in the womb. But the unborn infant was already a real, live sibling for my young friend. 

In another parish in Mindanao, nearly twenty years ago, I had a session one evening with people in one of the barrios. I was telling them how from the moment of conception every one of our qualities and characteristics, physical and intellectual, are already there. I could see that the people were fascinated, as I was myself.

What jumps out at me from the texts of both Masses for the Birth of St John the Baptist is that same sense of wonder at and awareness of new life that the little girl and the people in the barrio had. (I'll quote from the Jerusalem Bible and the Grail translation of the psalms). In the Vigil Mass Jeremiah tells us that the Lord said to him, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you. In the Responsorial Psalm in the same Mass we pray, On you I have leaned from my birth, from my mother's womb you have been my help. In the gospel of the Vigil Mass the angel says to Zechariah, Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you must name him John. He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord

The same theme is found in the Mass during the Day, Isaiah says, The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother's womb he pronounced my name. The response to the Responsorial Psalm is I thank you for the wonder of my being or I praise you for I am wonderfully made in the New American Bible lectionary. And in the psalm itself we pray, For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother's womb. I thank you for the wonder of my being, for the wonders of all your creation. Already you knew my soul, my body held no secret from you when I was being fashioned in secret and moulded in the depths of the earth.

Psalm 139 (138 in the liturgical books) puts the wonder of the creation of each human being in the womb in the context of the wonder of the whole of creation, something  we need to realise more. Pope Benedict in his Message for World Day of Peace, 1 January 2009, the them of which was If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation, wrote, Respect for creation is of immense consequence, not least because 'creation is the beginning and the foundation of all God’s works', and its preservation has now become essential for the pacific coexistence of mankind.

Those who wrote the scripture texts we use in the Vigil Mass and in the Mass During the Day had something of that respect, as had my young friend and the people in the barrio.

There are only three birthdays celebrated liturgically, that of St John the Baptist, that of our Blessed Mother on September 8 and that of Jesus at Christmas. The feast of the Annunciation is celebrated nine months before that. That and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December, are celebrations of the very beginning of life. These celebrations, all connected to each other, affirm the wonder of the gift of life. One of the characteristics of the spirituality of Filipinos is precisely that. Every birthday is celebrated in some way, even by those with little or nothing. As a priest I have discovered that people can feel 'cheated' if they're not able to mark your birthday in some way.

Beneath all of this is a reflection of what is sung in the Preface for the feast we are celebrating: His birth brought great rejoicing; even in the womb he leapt for joy at the coming of human salvation. May each of us have a sense of God's own joy as we celebrate not only the birth of the Lord's cousin but recall our own birth and baptism.

The Preface continues, He alone of all the prophets pointed out the Lamb of redemption. 80 years ago on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist a baby was born in Ireland two days before the end of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. The 50th ended there last Sunday. The 32nd Congress was held in 1934 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the infant born in Ireland was to die, only 26, on 21 January 1959, the feast of St Agnes. This was Alphonsus Lambe, known as 'Alfie'. He went to South America as an envoy of the Legion of Mary and became known as El Corderito, 'the Little Lamb'. Like St John the Baptist, he pointed out the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

Alfie's death on the feast of St Agnes is what I call an expression of God's 'thoughtfulness', something I have experienced on many occasions. Because her name, which in Greek means 'pure, chaste, sacred', resembles the Latin word for lamb, Agnus, the saint is always depicted with a lamb. Each year on the feast of St Agnes two lambs are presented to the Pope. Their wool is later used to make the pallium, which is worn only by the pope and metropolitan archbishops and is a symbol of the unity of the Church, usually given to new metropolitan archbishops on the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul.

Statue of St Agnes in the parish of St Agnes, Caloocan City, Philippines

 Prayer for the Beatification of Servant of God Alphonsus Lambe

God, who by your infinite mercy inflamed the heart of your servant, Alphonsus Lambe with an ardent love for you and for Mary, our Mother; a love which revealed itself in a life of intense labour, prayer and sacrifice for the salvation of souls, grant, if it be your will, that we may obtain, by his intercession, what we cannot obtain by our own merits. We ask this through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.  Amen.

with ecclesiastical approval

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