19 June 2018

'His birth brought great rejoicing.' Sunday Reflections, The Nativity of St John the Baptist

Birth of the Baptist, Andrea Pisano [Web Gallery of Art]

The Solemnity of the Nativity of St John the Baptist takes precedence liturgically over the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

At the Vigil Mass

The Vigil Mass is celebrated on Saturday evening and has its own proper antiphons, prayers and readings, different from those of the Sunday Mass. Taking part in this Mass fulfils one's Sunday obligation.

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

Gospel Luke 1:5-17 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)

At the Mass during the Day

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

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

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

The Visitation, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]

Nearly forty 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, myself and the one with our mother'. 'Manong' is an honorific for an older brother or a male older than oneself, 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, more than 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, in the New American Bible Lectionary, I praise you for I am wonderfully made. 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.

The Visitation, Andrea Pisano [Web Gallery of Art]

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 the opening paragraph of his Message for World Day of Peace, 1 January 2010, the theme 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.

In his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, No 120, Pope Francis says something similar, with an emphasis that is particularly apt for today's feast: Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? 'If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away'.

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.

At the Mass during the Day

Antiphona ad communionem  Communion Antiphon Cf Luke 1:78

Fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen Ioannes erat.
A man was sent from God, whose name was John.
Hic venit, ut testimonium perhiberet de lumine,
He came to testify to the light,
parare Domino plebem perfectam.
to prepare a people fit for the Lord.

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